Chinas Shenzhou-9 spacecraft blasted off at 6.37 pm on Saturday from a remote desert in western China,sending a crew of three,including the countrys first female astronaut,into space.
The Chinese astronauts are expected to complete the countrys first manned space docking mission,an important step in Beijings ambitious plan to build a space station by 2020.
The successful launch,powered by a Long March 2F rocket,was shown live on state television on Saturday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in western China.
The crew is expected to spend up to 20 days in space and dock with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module,a kind of miniature space station,which China launched in September 2011. The crew will conduct experiments and live for a time in the space module.
China has spent billions of dollars in the last decade to build a space programme to compete with the United States and Russia and plans to eventually put a man on the moon,perhaps by 2016.
The country sent its first man into space in 2003,and a Chinese astronaut did a spacewalk in 2008. The manned docking would be considered a milestone for Chinas space programme and the third major step in developing a space programme. China completed a docking by remote control in November when the Shenzhou 8 capsule coupled with the Tiangong 1 orbital module,an event that was broadcast live on national television and observed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao from the control centre in Beijing.
Saturdays launch included Chinas first female astronaut,a 33-year-old air force pilot named Liu Yang. This is an important leap forward for Chinas manned space programme, Wu Bangguo,the nations top legislator,said.
The goal,analysts say,is to dock with the space lab as practice for future dockings with the space station that China plans to build. One crew member will remain aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft as a precautionary measure while the others enter the Tiangong 1 orbital module.