China successfully has carried out its first docking exercise on between two unmanned spacecraft, a key test of the rising power's plans to secure a long-term manned foothold in space.
The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft joined the Tiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace 1) module about 340 kilometers above Earth, in a maneuver carried live on state television in the early hours of the morning.
The 10.5 meter-long unmanned Tiangong, launched on September 29, is part of China's preparations for a space laboratory at some point in the future.
Premier Wen Jiabao and other senior leaders oversaw the operation from a command centre in Beijing, a measure of the importance the government attaches to this mission and to China's space ambitions in general.
"We believe that making this breakthrough and mastering the space docking technology is a meaningful and historic breakthrough for our country and a huge technical leap forward," Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's Manned Space Engineering Programme, told a news conference.
Wu said all of the components in the docking mechanism, as well as 600 onboard instruments, were designed and manufactured by Chinese firms, mostly state-owned enterprises.
Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important aspect of China's efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills needed to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods.
The next stage will be two similar docking exercises in 2012, with at least one expected to carry astronauts.
China aims to have a fully fledged space station by about 2020.
compiled from a Reuters report