China took its first step towards building a space station on Thursday when it launched an experimental module ahead of National Day celebrations.
Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace”, took off on schedule shortly after 09:15pm (1315 GMT) from the Gobi desert in China’s northwest, propelled by a Long March 2F rocket, ahead of China’s National Day on October 1.
The unmanned 8.5-tonne module will test a number of space operations as a preliminary step towards building a space station by 2020.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was at the launch center for the take-off, while President Hu Jintao watched from a space flight control centre in Beijing, the state Xinhua news agency said.
Ten minutes after launching, the Tiangong-1 separated successfully from its carrier rocket at a height of around 200 kilometres (125 miles) before opening its two solar panels, Xinhua said.
China sees its ambitious space programme as a symbol of its global stature and state newspapers devoted several pages to the launch, hailing it as a “milestone” for the country.
Tiangong-1, which has a two-year lifespan in space, will receive the unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft later this year in what would be the first Chinese docking in space.
If that succeeds, the module will then dock with two other spacecraft — Shenzhou IX and X — in 2012, both of which will have at least one astronaut on board.
China, which has only been open to the world for some 30 years, is playing catch-up in the space arena.
It is unclear whether China plans to send humans to the moon, particularly after the United States said it would not return there.