A pair of Chinese unmanned spacecraft have docked in orbit, "a key test of the rising power's plans to secure a long-term manned foothold in space," according to Reuters.
The docking of the robotic spacecraft also marks a key step toward China "establishing a permanent manned presence in space by the end of the decade," MSNBC reported.
The docking was designed to test technologies that will use to assemble a space station in orbit, which China hopes to have operational by 2020.
According to Discovery News:
An orbital docking procedure, as demonstrated by Wednesday's "test run," is widely regarded as a critical proof-of-concept for any space faring nation — therefore, China is well on its way to fulfilling its space station aspirations.
Indicating the importance of the mission — and China's space ambitions in general — Chinese state TV broadcast the docking live, while Premier Wen Jiabao oversaw the mission from a command center in Beijing.
After two days of being maneuvered by ground controllers, the spacecraft — the Shenzhou 8 and a prototype space lab module called Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 — reportedly kicked into automatic mode and docked about 211 miles above Earth.
Chang Wanquan, chief commander of the China Manned Space Engineering Project, reportedly called the docking "a complete success."
Meanwhile chief designer, Zhou Jianping, was quoted by Xinhua as saying: "China is now equipped with the basic technology and capacity required for the construction of a space station. This will make it possible for China to carry out space exploration on a larger scale."
The docking comes as Russia and the United States, which jointly operate the 400 ton International Space Station, are cutting back on their space programs:
According to Reuters:
The United States will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017, and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority.
The Chinese spacecraft will remain attached for 12 days, at which time the Shenzhou 8 will detach and then re-dock with Tiangong 1.
Should it be successful for the second time, this will prove that the first docking procedure wasn't a fluke.
The next stage will be docking exercises in 2012 with at least one spacecraft carrying astronauts, Reuters quoted a spokeswoman for China's space program as saying.