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China launches space station module

China has launched an experimental module to lay the groundwork for a future space station.

The Tiangong-1 module was shot into space from the Jiuquan launch centre on the edge of the Gobi Desert aboard a Long March 2FT1 rocket.

After moving it into orbit, China plans to launch an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft to practise docking manoeuvres with the module, possibly within the next few weeks.

Two more missions, at least one of them manned, are to meet up with it next year for further practice, with astronauts staying for up to one month.

The 8.5-tonne module, whose name translates as Heavenly Palace-1, is to stay aloft for two years, after which two other experimental modules are to be launched for additional tests before the actual station is launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.

"This is a significant test. We've never done such a thing before," Lu Jinrong, the launch centre's chief engineer, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The space station, which is yet to be formally named, is the most ambitious project in China's exploration of space, which also calls for landing on the moon, possibly with astronauts.

China launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch humans into orbit and generating huge amounts of national pride for the Communist government.

At about 60 tonnes when completed, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the 16-nation International Space Statiion (ISS), which is expected to continue operating through 2028.

China applied repeatedly to join the ISS, but was rebuffed largely because of objections from the US.

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