China’s Shenzhou 14 spacecraft docked with the Tiangong space station late Sunday afternoon, the start of a six-month mission for three astronauts to oversee the final stages of the space station’s construction. The craft blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert in northern China at 10.44am and docked with the station’s Tianhe core module – 400km (248 miles) above the ground – at 5.42pm, a journey of almost seven hours. Control centre staff applauded as the spacecraft connected with the Tianhe module. After docking, the astronauts took three hours to open four hatches and enter the space station. China Manned Space Agency announced about 20 minutes after take-off that the launch of Shenzhou 14 was successful. It said the manned spacecraft separated from the rocket and entered the predetermined orbit 577 seconds after launch, adding that the crew were in good condition. The crew includes Liu Yang, who became the first Chinese woman in space as part of the crew for the Shenzhou 9 mission in 2012. She spent 13 days in the nation’s first space laboratory, Tiangong 1 , where she was in charge of medical experiments. This will be the 43-year-old’s second mission into low-Earth orbit. China’s first woman in space returns as part of Shenzhou 14 mission Also on board are Chen Dong, who is also 43 and spent 33 days at the country’s second space lab, Tiangong 2 , during the Shenzhou 11 mission in 2016; and Cai Xuzhe, a pilot who joined China’s space programme in 2010 but has never been to space before. The trio will be responsible for docking the 20-tonne Wentian and Mengtian lab modules – to be launched later in the year – to the Tianhe core module, the crew’s living space. They will later welcome the Tianzhou 5 supply ship and another batch of three astronauts – the Shenzhou 15 crew – before returning to Earth in December. It will be the first time for the Tiangong to host six people at once. The Wentian lab module is expected to be launched in July and Mengtian in October, and once in place, they will allow astronauts to explore as well as research space science, materials and medicine. A small mechanical arm installed on the Wentian module can work alone or with the larger robotic arm on the Tianhe core module to help astronauts in activities outside the space station. The crew will also perform two to three spacewalks, which for the first time will be from the Wentian lab. An airlock cabin in the lab will serve as the main exit-entry point for activities outside the station after it is constructed. The astronauts are also expected to oversee five dockings, three undockings and two reconfigurations of the modules. The basic structure of the space station is expected to be complete by the end of the year. China opens space station door to working with foreign astronauts The successful launch of Shenzhou 14 comes a week after a radio surveillance team at the launch station in Inner Mongolia said they found a jamming device that could interfere with navigation systems in a car that passed by the centre in mid-May – the first time it has reported such an incident. The jammer could cause a rocket to go off course, but the space centre did not say whether it had uncovered a sabotage attempt or accidental interference.