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China took a crucial step towards fulfilling its ambition to set up a manned space station on Thursday by completing its first successful docking high above Earth, state media reported.
The Shenzhou VIII spacecraft joined onto the Tiangong-1 experimental module at 1737 GMT, silently coupling more than 343 kilometres (213 miles) above the Earth's surface, the Xinhua news agency said.
The spacecraft, whose name translates as "divine vessel", is a modified version of the capsules that took the first Chinese astronauts into space as part of the rising power's ambitious exploration programme.
China aims to complete construction of a space station by 2020, a goal that requires it to perfect docking technology -- a delicate manoeuvre that the Russians and Americans successfully completed in the 1960s.
The technology is hard to master because the two vessels, placed in the same orbit and revolving around Earth at high speed, must come together progressively to avoid destroying each other.
China sees its space programme as a symbol of its global stature, growing technical expertise, and the Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
Chinese leaders including Premier Wen Jiabao were at the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center to watch a live broadcast of the docking, while President Hu Jintao, who is in France for the G20 summit, sent a congratulatory message.
"Breakthroughs in and acquisition of space docking technologies are vital to the three-phase development strategy of our manned space programme," Hu said.
The docking took eight minutes and was aided by microwave radars, laser distance measurers and video cameras.
The two spacecraft, each weighing about eight tonnes, smoothly captured, cushioned, connected and locked onto each other, Xinhua reported.
"To link up two vehicles traveling at 7.8 km per second in orbit, with a margin of error of no more than 20 centimetres, is like 'finding a needle in a haystack'," Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space programme, said.
"This will make it possible for China to carry out space exploration on a larger scale."
He said the country was now equipped with the technology and capacity to construct a space station, adding that Shenzhou VIII might be used as the prototype for a series of spaceships.
China plans to make more than 20 manned space voyages in the next decade, Xinhua said.
A Chinese astronaut trainer is among six volunteers who will emerge on Friday into the outside world after spending almost 18 months in isolation at a Russian research centre to test the effects on humans of a flight to Mars.
China began its manned spaceflight programme in 1990 after buying Russian technology and in 2003 became the third country to send humans into space, after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
In September 2008, the Shenzhou VII, piloted by three astronauts, carried out China's first space walk.
The Shenzhou VIII spacecraft took off on Tuesday from the Jiuquan base in the northwestern province of Gansu from where Tiangong-1 -- or "Heavenly Palace" -- also launched on September 29.
The two vessels will stay linked together for around 12 days before separating and uniting again at a later date, said Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space programme.
If this mission is a success, China will launch two more spacecraft next year to dock with Tiangong-1 -- the Shenzhou IX and Shenzhou X -- at least one of which will be manned.
Two women are among the astronauts who are training for this mission, Xinhua said. If they are chosen to go, they will be the first women to be sent into space by China.
In preparation for the manned flight, two life-size dummies have been placed on board Shenzhou VIII.
Electronic data will be transmitted back to Earth to help researchers assess the impact of the flight on human breathing, temperature and blood pressure.
The spacecraft is also being used by Chinese and German researchers to conduct joint experiments in life sciences and microgravity, the first time another country has been given any access to China's manned space programme.
China plans to launch a space laboratory before 2016, and hopes to have a space station in orbit capable of accommodating long-term stays in space by around 2020, officials have said.
(c) 2011 AFP
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China spacecraft dock together in orbit
Two unmanned Chinese spacecraft docked successfully and were orbiting the Earth together on Thursday in a step that moves China closer to manning its own space station in about a decade.
The Shenzhou 8 craft that was launched on Tuesday docked with the already orbiting Tiangong 1 module, said Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space program.
The assembly has orbited Earth six times, with onboard instruments working normally, she said.
The US and Russia are the only other countries to master the space docking technique. It was "a milestone success and sets a sound foundation for continued missions", Wu said.
The joint assembly will fly for another 12 days doing tests, then a second docking will be followed by two days' flight. Shenzhou 8 is scheduled to return to Earth on November 17, she said.
"Our aim is to try our best to perform multiple tests within one launch so as to maximise our benefits through limited launches," Wu said.
China launched its own space station program after being turned away in its repeated attempts to join the 16-nation International Space Station. That was largely on objections from the United States, which is wary of the Chinese space program's military links.
Experts see no explicit military function for the Chinese space station.
In terms of technology, the launch of the Tiangong-1 places China about where the US was in the 1960s during the Gemini program. But experts say China progresses further than the US did with each launch it undertakes.
Two more docking missions with the Tiangong 1 model are planned next year, one of them manned. China will set up a space lab by 2016, Wu said, and its actual station will be launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.
All the parts of the docking mechanism and the more than 600 onboard instruments were designed and made by Chinese state-owned and private companies, she said.
President Hu Jintao praised the docking in a message from France en route to the Group of 20 economic summit. Premier Wen Jiabao and other top officials watched the docking from an aerospace centre in Beijing, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
At about 60 tons when completed, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the International Space Station, which is expected to continue operating through 2028.
China launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch humans into orbit. The Chinese space program also calls for one day landing on the moon, possibly with astronauts.
Asked by a reporter what real benefits the Chinese government's investment in its space program brought to ordinary citizens, Wu said "It's fair to say that aerospace technology is closely linked to the everyday life of the people."
She said the benefits of past space travel ranged from the use of satellites for navigating in cars and television broadcasting to the designs of nappies for babies and the freeze-drying of ingredients used in instant noodles.
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China's space station program