BEIJING (AFP) – Astronauts entered the new lab module of China’s space station for the first time Monday (July 25), in a major step towards completing the orbital outpost by the end of the year.

The station is one of the crown jewels of Beijing’s ambitious space programme, which has landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon, and made China only the third nation to put humans in orbit.

Once completed, Tiangong – or “heavenly palace” – will be constantly crewed by rotating teams of three astronauts, who will conduct scientific experiments and help test new technologies.

Wentian, the second of Tiangong’s three main sections, docked with the station’s core module Tianhe on Monday after successfully launching from southern China a day earlier, state media reported.

A few hours after docking, the three astronauts – who have been living in the core module since June – opened the hatch and entered Wentian, footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed.

The crew, dressed in blue jumpsuits, were seen floating around the brightly lit module before facing the camera and saluting.

Wentian will focus on life sciences and biotechnology research, according to official news agency Xinhua, including cell research and growth experiments on plants, fruit flies and zebrafish.

The module will have living space for three additional astronauts, housing up to six people during crew transitions, state media said.

The third and final module, another lab named Mengtian, is scheduled for launch in October.

Tiangong, once completed, is expected to remain in low orbit 400-450 kilometres above Earth for at least 10 years.

Next year, China is also planning to launch a space telescope with a field of view 350 times that of Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope will be positioned in the same orbit as Tiangong, allowing the station to dock with it for refuelling and servicing when needed.