China's first unmanned cargo spacecraft launched
China has launched its first unmanned cargo spacecraft on a mission to dock with the country's space station.
The Tianzhou 1 blasted off at 7.41pm local time on Thursday on the top of a latest-generation Long March 7 rocket from China's newest spacecraft launch site, Wenchang on the island province of Hainan.
It is programmed to conduct scientific experiments after reaching the now-crewless Tiangong 2, China's second space station. Two Chinese astronauts spent 30 days on board the station last year.
China launched the Tiangong 2 precursor facility in September and the station's core module will be launched next year.
The completed station is set to come into full service in 2022 and operate for at least a decade.
Communications with the earlier, disused Tiangong 1 experimental station were cut last year and it is expected to burn up on entering the atmosphere.
China was excluded from the International Space Station mainly due to US legislation barring such co-operation and concerns over the Chinese space programme's strong military connections.
Chinese officials are now looking to internationalise their own programme by offering to help finance other countries' missions to Tiangong 2.
Since China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, it has staged a spacewalk and landed its Jade Rabbit rover on the moon.
A mission to land another rover on Mars and bring back samples is set to launch in 2020, while China also plans to become the first country to soft-land a probe on the far side of the moon.