The first Tiangong crew includes astronauts Nie Haisheng (C), Liu Boming (R) and Tang Hongbo. AFP/Greg Baker
BEIJING - The first astronauts arrived at China's new space station on Thursday in the country's longest crewed mission to date, a landmark step in establishing Beijing as a major space power.
The trio blasted off on a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan launch centre in northwest China's Gobi desert, and their craft docked around seven hours later at the Tiangong station, where they will spend the next three months.
State broadcaster CCTV showed a live feed from inside the spacecraft during the journey, with the three astronauts lifting their helmet visors after it reached orbit as one smiled and waved at the camera.
Another floated a pen just off his lap in zero gravity, as he browsed the flight manual.
China space station taking shape in orbit
Around seven hours after lift-off, space officials confirmed that the craft had docked with Tianhe, the core module of the country's new space station.
The Shenzhou-12 craft -- having separated from the Long March rocket -- had "successfully docked with the forward port of the core module" of the Tiangong station, said the China Manned Space Agency, as state TV showed live footage.
By Thursday evening, the astronauts were shown on television entering the core module, one of them making a 360-degree flip in the process.
The group will be setting up their living quarters and are expected to open the door to the Tianzhou-2 cargo craft -- which docked earlier with the core module -- on Friday morning.
The mission's commander is Nie Haisheng, a decorated air force pilot in the People's Liberation Army who has already participated in two space missions.
The two other members are also from the military.
The Tianhe module of the space station has separate living spaces for each of the astronauts, a "space treadmill" and bike for exercise, and a communication centre for emails and video calls with ground control.
Huang Weifen of the China Manned Space Program said the astronauts would perform two spacewalks during the mission, both lasting around six or seven hours.
She also said the trio would wear newly developed spacewalk suits.
The launch -- of China's first crewed mission in nearly five years -- is a matter of huge prestige in China, as Beijing prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party on July 1 with a massive propaganda campaign.