China has launched a Shenzhou 8 from the Jiuquan launch site in western China.

The spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the already-orbiting Tiangong laboratory, a major checkpoint for China's rapidly-developing space programme.

The Shenzhou capsule was launched by a Long March 2-F in the early morning of 31 October. The capsule, which is capable of carrying three taikonauts, as Chinese astronauts are known, was launched unmanned. Several scientific experiments are aboard the capsule from research institutions in China and Germany.

Tiangong-1 was launched on 29 September. The unmanned Shenzhou is planned to dock with Tiangong for 12 days, after which the Shenzhou will depart and re-enter the atmosphere. Tiangong will stay in orbit, to be visited to at least one manned Shenzhou in 2012.

 Long March


The test results will be used to develop a significantly larger, multi-part space station, scheduled to be orbited and manned by 2020. It is the same year the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled to be deorbited, potentially leaving China with the only permanent manned presence in low Earth orbit.

Source: Flight International