China launches Shenzhou-8 for docking test

A man takes a photo of an upgraded Long March 2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, northwest China's Gansu province on October 31, 2011. China said it will launch an unmanned spacecraft on November 1, taking its next step towards the goal of building its first space station by 2020.</p>

A man takes a photo of an upgraded Long March 2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, northwest China's Gansu province on October 31, 2011. China said it will launch an unmanned spacecraft on November 1, taking its next step towards the goal of building its first space station by 2020.

China launched its Shenzhou-8 spacecraft into orbit early Tuesday morning, sending it on an unmanned flight that will be the country's first test of a space docking.

The Shenzhou-8 was launched on a Chinese Long March 2F rocket, from the Jiuquan space center at the edge of the Gobi desert, Space.com reports. The launch took place Tuesday at 5:58 a.m. Beijing time.

State-run Chinese media reported that Chang Wanquan, head of China's manned space program, had declared the launch successful.

The plan is for Shenzhou-8 to dock with China's Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace") space lab module, which launched from the Jiuquan center in September.

BBC News says that it will be several days before Shenzhou-8 is in a position to attempt a docking at the module. The plan is for the two crafts to spend 12 days connected before detaching and attempting to dock again.

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According to Space.com, the planned docking between the two spacecrafts "is seen as a significant step for China's space program, which aims to eventually build its own manned space station in orbit." 

If all goes well with the Shenzhou-8 mission, then the plan is for Chinese astronauts ("yuhangyuans") to visit the space lab module next year, BBC News says. 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 by 2020. 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.

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