A soldier runs away from the launching pad holding the Long March 2-F rocket loaded with Shenzhou-10 manned spacecraft

Chinese manned space mission blasts off

China’s latest manned space flight blasted off from the Gobi desert this morning.

The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft launched from the remote Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gansu Province in China's far west at 5:38pm (9.38am GMT), after the launch was announced by Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space programme at a televised briefing yesterday.

The launch is the latest step towards the development of a Chinese space station and once in orbit, the craft will dock with the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1, a trial space laboratory module.

The capsule containing commander, Nie Haisheng, and his crew, Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping, China's second female astronaut, will be ejected from the upper-stage of the rocket about nine minutes after lift-off.

It will then take just over 40 hours to raise its orbit to the operating altitude of Tiangong 208 miles above the planet's surface.

Once at the module the three astronauts will carry out various experiments and test the module's systems and will also give a lecture to students back on Earth, Wu said.

Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important hurdle in China's efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods while being supplied by robotic freighters.

China is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers, the United States and Russia, but the Shenzhou 10 mission will be the latest show of China's growing prowess in space and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back US manned space launches.

It will be China's fifth manned space mission since 2003 and China has also said it has plans for an unmanned Moon landing and deployment of a Moon rover. Scientists have raised the possibility of sending a man to the Moon, but not before 2020.

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