|A Long March-2FT1 carrier rocket loaded with Tiangong-1 unmanned space lab module blasts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province, Sept. 29, 2011. (Xinhua/Wang Jianmin)
by Xinhua writers Yan Hao and Li Huizi
BEIJING, Sept. 29 (Xinhua) -- China's first space lab module Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace-1, blasted off at 9:16 p.m. Beijing Time (1316 GMT) Thursday in a northwest desert area as the nation envisions the coming of its space station era in about ten years.
The unmanned module, carried by the Long March-2FT1 rocket, will test space docking with a spacecraft later this year, paving the way for China to operate a permanent space station around 2020 and making it the world's third country to do so.
More than ten minutes after the blastoff, Commander-in-chief of China's manned space program Chang Wanquan announced the launch's success at the control center in Beijing.
The success of the launch, however, is just a beginning, and the real challenge is space docking, said Yang Hong, chief designer of Tiangong module series.
Unlike previous Chinese space vehicles, the Tiangong-1 has a docking facility which allows it to be connected to multiple space modules in order to assemble an experimental station in low Earth orbit.
The Tiangong-1 will orbit the Earth for about one month, awaiting the arrival of the Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft. Once the two vehicles successfully rendezvous, they will conduct the first space docking at a height of 340 kilometers above the earth's surface.
The Tiangong-1 flies at a speed of 7.8 kilometers per second in orbit, which leaves ground-based staff an error of less than 0.12 meter to control the two vehicles to dock in low gravity. China has never tried such test and could not simulate it on the ground.
After two docking tests with the Shenzhou-8, the Tiangong-1 will await Shenzhou-9, to be followed by Shenzhou-10, which will possibly carry a female astronaut, in the next two years, according to the plan for China's manned space program.
If the astronaut in the Shenzhou-10 mission succeeds with the manual space docking, China will become the third nation after the United States and Russia to master the technology.
President Hu Jintao watched the launch from the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center on Thursday, two days before China's National Day, witnessing the latest endeavor of China's manned space program since 1992.
Hu told the engineers, commanders and other workers at the control center to do every job in a "more aborative and meticulous" manner to ensure the success of the country's first space docking mission.
Other members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, including Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin, Li Changchun, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and Zhou Yongkang, were also present.
Premier Wen Jiabao went to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center to watch the launch process with He Guoqiang, member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee.
Chinese people were inspired by the successful launch.
"The Tiangong-1 has gone into the dark sky! We Chinese are on the way to inhabiting the vast universe," wrote Qichaoxiguanghai on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog service provider.
"I heard the news of the Tiangong-1's launch from the radio on a ship to Yangzhou," wrote microblogger Xingfufeiafei. "I am proud to share the pride that shakes the world. The pride of our nation is once again deep in my heart."