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September 30, 2011

China has launched an experimental module into space ahead of National Day celebrations. The lauch has been hailed as a 'milestone' for the country's space program.

Tiangong-1 space module
The unmanned 8.5 tonne space station was lauchned successfullyImage: dapd

Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace," took off on schedule shortly after 9:15 pm local time on Thursday 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 module weighs some 8.5 tons.

The state Xinhua news agency revealed that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao attended the launch and President Hu Jintao watched from a space flight control centre in Beijing. Ten minutes after the launch, Tiangong-1 separated successfully from its carrier rocket at a height of around 200 kilometers (125 miles) before opening its two solar panels. Images were shown live on state television.

Space shuttle Mir
Beijing wants to finish a space station where astronauts can live for months

Applause from the West

John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University, told Xinhua "Tiangong-1 is the next step in China's slow-paced but steady effort to achieve human spaceflight capability." He also said that "By itself it is not a major step forward, but is important to China's demonstrating rendezvous and docking technologies."

French researcher Isabelle Sourbes-Verger said that a correctly functioning docking system would put China "in a potential position to one day access the International Space Station (ISS)." But she cautioned that this was not likely to happen within the next five years.

Catching up with the others

By 2020 China aims to finish its space station, where astronauts can live autonomously for several months as they do on the ISS or the former Russian Mir. Beijing began its manned spaceflight programme in 1990 after it purchased Russian technology.

Moon Rover, Apollo-Mission of NASA
Research has started to send humans to the moonImage: NASA

It is not clear whether China plans to send humans to the moon, particularly after the United States said it would not return there. The China Daily newspaper quoted Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's manned space programme, as saying that the Asian nation was doing "concept research and preliminary feasibility studies on manned moon landings."

Beijing is still far from catching up with the other space superpowers. The Tiangong-1 launch is a trial step in Beijing's plans to eventually establish its own space station. Russia, the United States and other countries jointly operate the International Space Station, to which China still does not belong.

Agencies: AFP, Reuters / mj
Editor: Grahame Lucas