China on Thursday launched an unmanned space module aboard a Long March rocket, saying the mission will pave the way for a space station.
The Tiangong-1 module was destined for a 300 to 400-kilometer (186 to 248-mile)-high orbit around Earth, and will be used as a "target" for missions that will practice crucial rendezvous and docking procedures.
The 8.5-ton Tiangong-1, which means "Heavenly Palace" in Chinese, was shot into space from the launch center in remote Gansu province aboard the Long March 2F rocket, official media reported. They had been on the launch pad since Tuesday, waiting for ideal conditions.
An unmanned Shenzhou module will try to dock with the Tiangong.
Cui Jijun, director of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua news agency that the craft will be used as "a target spacecraft" for rendezvous and docking experiments.
It will also work as "a platform to test long-term unmanned and short-term manned operations," Cui said.
China has said it plans to build a 60-ton space station by 2020.
'Sigh of relief'
The launch was broadcast on live state-run television, and the video soon shared rapidly among Chinese netizens.
The voices of the technicians were heard counting down and performing all the instrument checks, while a live camera sent pictures from the top of the rocket.
"Well, I can heave a sigh of relief," wrote user @wodeerzijiaobiubiu on the popular microblogging service Weibo.com. "The Tiangong-1 launch went smoothly."
"Congratulations on the successful launch of the Tiangong-1," added user @maoxiaowan, while user @ngohhaihandson enthused: "This is great! I am so happy! I want to cry!"
"Another milestone for China's space program," wrote user @huoyuedesuancai.
Some were quick to put the launch in context, however.
"In 2012, this will be a question in the university entrance exam's political paper: 'When did the Tiangong-1 launch?' By 2022 it will be a history question," quipped user @lwc9099.
Manned flight to follow
China plans to launch an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft before the end of this year, in what, if successful, will be its first docking of two spacecraft.
A manned flight to Tiangong could follow as early as 2012, analysts said.
According to Australian space analyst Morris Jones, Tiangong is an intermediate program, with two more laboratories expected to be launched to test further technology to be used aboard a space station.
"When the final space station is built, it will eclipse the modestly sized Tiangong laboratory in terms of size, performance, and achievements," Jones wrote in an article on the Space Daily website.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.