China one step closer to space station

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Beijing - A Chinese spacecraft carried out a manned docking with an experimental space module on Monday, the latest milestone in China's ambitious effort to build a space station.

The Shenzhou 9 and its three-person crew, which includes China's first woman in space, linked with the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module just after 0600 GMT. State television carried images live.

The crew is expected to enter the module in a few hours, the official Xinhua news agency said, the first time China has been able to transfer astronauts between two orbiting craft.

During the 13-day mission, the astronauts will work and sleep aboard Tiangong 1, a trial module that includes an exercise bike and a video telephone booth, according to media.

Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important hurdle in China's efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods of time.

China is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers: the United States and Russia. The Tiangong 1 is a trial module, not the building block of a space station.

But the docking mission is the latest show of China's growing prowess in space and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.

The United States will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017, and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority.

But NASA has begun investing in U.S. firms to provide commercial spaceflight services and is spending about $3 billion a year on a new rocket and capsule to send astronauts to the moon, asteroids and eventually to Mars.

China plans an unmanned moon landing and deployment of a moon rover. Scientists have raised the possibility of sending a man to the moon, but not before 2020. - Reuters


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