Beijing, we have liftoff... Heavenly Palace heads for the stars

China has taken its first step towards building a space station, launching an experimental module ahead of National Day celebrations.

Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, took off on schedule yesterday from the Gobi Desert in China's northwest, propelled by a Long March 2F rocket, ahead of National Day today.

The unmanned 8.5-tonne module will test a number of space operations as a preliminary step towards building a space station by 2020.

Premier Wen Jiabao was at the launch centre for the takeoff, while President Hu Jintao watched from a 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 200km 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.

Tiangong-1 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 next year, both of which will have at least one astronaut on board.

The technology for docking in space is hard to master because the two vessels, revolving around Earth at 28,000 km/h, must come together progressively to avoid destroying each other.

French researcher Isabelle Sourbes-Verger said a correctly functioning docking system would put China "in a potential position to one day access the International Space Station".

But she cautioned that this was not likely to happen in the next five years.

China is playing catch-up in the space arena. Just like its first manned spaceflight in 2003, the planned space docking this year will emulate what the Americans and Russians achieved in the 1960s.

China aims to finish its space station, where astronauts can live autonomously for several months, by 2020.

Beijing began its manned spaceflight programme in 1990, after it bought Russian technology.


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