When Shenzhou docks at the Heavenly Place, the two spacecraft form a structure larger than a double-decker bus

Chinese space capsule reaches its 'Heavenly Palace'

The manned Chinese space capsule reached its destination on Thursday and docked automatically with the Tiangong 1 space lab. The name Tiangong means "heavenly palace".

A crew of three astronauts - Commander Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang and the second Chinese female astronaut Wang Yaping - will now spend two weeks inside the orbital habitat conducting scientific, medical and technical experiments.

The automated rendezvous began at 2:45 GMT with Shenzhou guiding itself with the help of laser and radar sensors towards the docking port. The capsule then docked using a system similar to that used during the 1970s Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the assembly of Russian Mir space station and for Space-Shuttle docking at the ISS.

Chinese officials previously stated the Shenzhou 10 mission would pioneer a new path to docking, approaching Tiangong 1 from underneath instead from behind.

When docked together, the vehicles form an oblong structure larger than a double-decker bus – over 18m long and almost 4m in diameter with a habitable volume of almost 20 cubic metres. Tiangong 1, which is in orbit since 2011, controls the orientation of the docked complex with six gyroscopes, and the two craft share electrical resources generated by solar arrays.

During the Shenzhou mission, China wants to test practical orbital techniques, life support systems and other technologies required to support crews on long-duration missions. The information collected will help China advance in its ambitions to construct a large, 200-tonne space station in low Earth orbit by 2020.

Later during the mission, the crew will test manual docking techniques and depart temporarily from Tiangong 1. The capsule will then approach the space lab a second time under manual control, and dock piloted by Nie, Shenzhou 10's 48-year-old veteran commander.

The mission, scheduled to last 15 days, will become the country’s longest spaceflight since 2003 when China became only the third nation in the world to launch humans into space.

Thursday's docking was not broadcast on Chinese state television.

Shenzhou 10 blasted off atop a Long March 2F rocket on Tuesday from China's Jiuquan space base - a launching centre in China's northwestern Gobi desert.

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