China launched a prototype laboratory module into orbit today as the nation continued a step-by-step development project aimed at establishing an outpost around the time the International Space Station might be decommissioned.
The eight-ton Tiangong-1 -- or 'Heavenly Palace-1 -- blasted off from the Jiuquan launch center on the edge of the Gobi Desert aboard a Long March 2FT1 rocket and then flew into an orbit about 217 miles above the planet.
Independent analysts expect China plans to launch an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft to rendezvous and robotically dock with the space lab, possibly within the next few weeks. Two more missions -- at least one with taikonauts -- are anticipated over he next two years. The goal is to launch and assemble a space station about the size of the former Russian Mir outpost around 2020 -- about the same time the International Space Station might be decommissioned.
"This is a significant test. We've never done such a thing before," Lu Jinrong, the launch center's chief engineer, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.