In another milestone in its burgeoning space program, China said it successfully launched an unmanned spacecraft equipped with technology that will take it one step closer to building a space station by 2020.
Officials from China’s space program announced Monday (Tuesday in China) that the country launched its Shenzhou-8 spacecraft aboard a modified Long March-2F rocket, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
On Nov. 3, the spacecraft is expected to dock with a module, named Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace-1," that has been orbiting the Earth for more than a month. If the rendezvous is successful, it will mark country's first space docking ever -- a key achievement as the country plans to build its own space station.
According to Xinhua News Agency: "The docking, if successful, will pave the way for China to operate a permanent space station around 2020, and make the nation the world's third [nation] to do so."
Gregory Kulacki, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists who is based in Beijing, said the launch was nationally televised. It also featured interviews with Chinese aerospace engineers, who described the high technology, such as new launch control and procedures, involved in the program.
"They described the advance as a large step forward for the Chinese space program," Kulacki said. "The next major event will be just after midnight on Nov. 3, when they will provide live television coverage of the docking maneuver from cameras mounted on the two spacecraft."
Although Monday's mission was unmanned, China became the third country to send a human into space in 2003. Three years later, it sent a probe to the moon. The country now has 21 astronauts, including two women.
Photo: Screen grab of YouTube video that shows launch of Shenzhou-8 spacecraft aboard a modified Long March-2F rocket.