30 Sep 2011

China launches space module

6:18 am on 30 September 2011

China has launched a space module in its first step towards creating an orbiting space station.

The unmanned capsule Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, blasted off from a launch site in the Gobi Desert in north west China at 9.16pm on Thursday.

The Long March rocket took the space laboratory on a path to an orbit above the Earth, the BBC reports.

Chinese television showed President Hu Jintao and other top leaders joining mission controllers to follow the launch at a space centre in Beijing.

The 10.5m-long, cylindrical module will be unmanned for the time being, but the country's astronauts are expected to visit it next year.

The module will be used for docking practice so China can develop the techniques to build a space lab and, later on, a full space station.

China plans to launch an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft and to link it and the space module in a few weeks' time.

The BBC reports that this rendezvous and docking capability is a prerequisite if larger structures are to be assembled in orbit.

Russia, the United States and other countries jointly operate the International Space Station, to which China does not belong.