With a nighttime liftoff from a launch pad on the edge of the Gobi Desert, China today put its unmanned Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace-1") module into orbit and started a decade-long project aimed at constructing its own space station.
The module will "conduct surveys of Chinese farmland using special cameras, along with experiments involving growing crystals in zero gravity," The Associated Press says. Then, in coming years:
"China ... plans to launch an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft to practice remote-controlled docking maneuvers with the module, possibly within the next few weeks. Two more missions, at least one of them manned, are to meet up with it next year for further practice, with astronauts staying for up to one month.
"The 8.5-ton module ... is to stay aloft for two years, after which two other experimental modules are to be launched for additional tests before the actual station is launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022."
Xinhua, China's official news agency, says that "Tiangong-1, or 'Heavenly Palace-1,' speaks of a dream home from Chinese folklore, long envisioned as a secret place where deities reside."
ITN News has posted video of the liftoff.