Science: China sends first woman into space
China launched its most ambitious space mission yet on Saturday, carrying its first female astronaut and two male colleagues in an attempt to dock with an orbiting module and work on board for more than a week.
The Shenzhou 9 capsule lifted off as scheduled at 6:37 p.m. from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert. All systems functioned normally and, just over 10 minutes later, it opened its solar panels and entered orbit.
Female astronaut Liu Yang, 33, and two male crew members are to dock the spacecraft with a prototype space lab launched last year in a key step toward building a permanent space station. All three are experienced pilots and officers in the Chinese air force.
China is hoping to join the United States and Russia as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit. It is already one of just three nations to have launched manned spacecraft on their own. Another manned mission to the module is planned later this year, while possible future missions could include sending a man to the moon.
The astronauts are expected to reach the module, called Tiangong 1, on Monday. Now orbiting at 343 kilometers above Earth, the module is only a prototype, and plans call for it to be replaced by a larger permanent space station due for completion around 2020.
China has only limited cooperation in space with other nations and its exclusion from the ISS, largely on objections from the United States, was one of the key spurs for it to pursue an independent space program 20 years ago.