Rocket launches Chinese space lab

A rocket carrying China's first space laboratory, Tiangong-1, has launched from the north of the country.

The Long March vehicle lifted clear from the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert at 21:16 local time (13:16 GMT).

The rocket's ascent took the lab out over the Pacific, and on a path to an orbit some 350km above the Earth.

The 10.5m-long, cylindrical module will be unmanned for the time being, but the country's astronauts, or yuhangyuans, are expected to visit it next year.

Tiangong means "heavenly palace" in Chinese.

The immediate plan is for the module to operate in an autonomous mode, monitored from the ground. Then, in a few weeks' time, China will launch another unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou 8, and try to link the pair together.

This rendezvous and docking capability is a prerequisite if larger structures are ever to be assembled in orbit.

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