China launched three astronauts - including its first woman - into orbit yesterday on a mission that will see the crew attempt a difficult manned docking with the Tiangong-I space module, a critical step in the nation's ambitious plan to build a space station by 2020.
A Long March 2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-IX spacecraft blasted off from the remote Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia as scheduled at 6.37 pm.
After separating from the rocket, the spacecraft entered orbit and expanded the solar panels on each of its sides about 10 minutes later.
At 6.57 pm, the commander-in-chief of the nation's manned space programme, General Chang Wanquan, declared the launch a success. A few minutes earlier, images were relayed from the craft showing the three astronauts looking relaxed in the spacecraft and waving to the camera.
The launch and a send-off ceremony in the afternoon - attended by National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo - were broadcast live on state television and the internet.
The three astronauts, People's Liberation Army senior colonels Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, and PLA Air Force Major Liu Yang, will spend 13 days in space, including 10 days in the laboratory module, in one of China's longest manned space missions.
The Shenzhou-IX is expected to perform an automated docking with Tiangong-I tomorrow, at which point astronauts can enter the module to begin conducting experiments.
A date has not been set yet for a manual docking, which will be performed by Liu Wang. He told the media earlier he had practised the delicate procedure more than 1,500 times.
China completed an automated docking with the module during the unmanned Shenzhou-8 mission last year. But a successful manual docking will demonstrate a significant advancement in the technology needed for China's plans to build a space station by 2020.
In a congratulatory letter yesterday, President Hu Jintao, on a state visit to Denmark, called on the astronauts to achieve a breakthrough for the nation with a successful manual docking.
China is the one of three nations with a manned space programme and it is hoping to catch up with the United States and Russia in having put a space station into orbit.
Including a woman, Liu Yang, on the mission provided a huge boost for the mission's popularity, both at home and around the world. Chen Shanguang, director of the astronaut training programme, said: 'The woman astronaut will conduct scientific and medical experiments. She will play an assisting role during the mission, somewhat like a payload specialist.'
Chen confirmed overseas speculation that Liu Yang, who was a late addition to the team, had been rushed through some basic training courses.
The total time of her training had been cut by a third to about two years to ensure she would join the mission.
Yesterday's launch was also the first manned flight in summer. The Long March rocket in the launch used volatile fuels that required to be kept at very low temperatures to remain stable.
Cui Jijun, director of the Jiuquan launch centre, said the launch would be helpful to the future operation of China's new launch centre in Wenchang, Hainan.
China is building its largest space centre on the tropical island to increase its rocket launch ability.