Asia & Pacific
China launched two astronauts into space on Monday on its longest-yet mission to dock with its experimental orbiting laboratory as the country works towards setting up its own permanent space station.
The Shenzhou-11 spacecraft blasted off at 7:30 a.m. (2330 GMT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong will take two days to reach the Tiangong-2 space lab, or "Heavenly Palace-2", which was launched in September.
The astronauts will remain on board for 30 days -- the longest stay thus far by Chinese astronauts -- to conduct tests on spacecraft-related technologies and scientific and engineering experiments, Xinhua said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to the mission on Monday, urging them to aim at taking great leaps for the Chinese nation, Xinhua said.
The mission should work to ensure "the Chinese people will take bigger steps and march further" in space, and contribute "to the building of China into a space power", Xinhua cited him as saying.
China is pouring billions into its military-run space program and working to catch up with the US and Europe, with hopes to have its own crewed outpost by 2022. It is only the third country, after Russia and the US, to carry out its own crewed missions.
Beijing sees the Tiangong-2 program as symbolizing the country's progress and a marker of its rising global stature, but so far China has largely replicated activities that the US and Soviet Union pioneered decades ago.
The Tiangong-2 lab is in orbit 393 kilometers (244 miles) above Earth and has two cabins -- an hermetically sealed experiment chamber that doubles as the living quarters, and a resources store holding supplies such as solar panels, engines and batteries.
Russian space system design expert Aleksandr Zheleznyakov told Xinhua that the lab's structure indicated China's design plans for its future space station, which he expected would have a core cabin with multiple docks for different modules.
China was excluded from participation in the International Space Station due to concerns over the military nature of the country's space program.
(Staff with AFP)