China has launched a rocket carrying the country's first space lab, Tiangong-1, which means "heavenly palace" in Chinese.
The Long March rocket carrying the auspiciously named space laboratory lifted off from Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi Desert on Thursday, BBC News reports. Controllers haven't yet confirmed that the lab, which consists of an an 8.5-ton set of interconnecting chambers, has been put in its correct orbit.
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The space lab will be unmanned at first, but the plan is for Chinese astronauts ("yuhangyuans") to visit it next year, the BBC says.
The BBC says that the space lab module will operate autonomously, with monitoring from the ground, before another unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou 8, is launched in a few weeks to try and link the two together.
If all goes well, then two manned space missions are expected to follow in 2012. The Chinese astronauts would live aboard the space lab for up to two weeks at a time.
China has pledged to build a space station at the end of the decade. So far, only the U.S. and Russia have the proven ability to dock with orbiting space stations, a feat that one Chinese scientist compared to "asking two racing cars to keep a distance of 1 meter between them," says the China Daily.