China said on Wednesday it will launch within weeks its first spacecraft capable of docking with a module it put into orbit last month, in what will mark a crucial test of its growing space program.
The unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, carried by the Long March-2F rocket, will blast off in early November, state media reported, and will later try to dock with the Tiantong-1, or “Heavenly Palace-1” space laboratory module China launched in September.
Officials with China’s space program have said the docking tests will provide experience for the building of a permanent manned space station around 2020.
It is also the latest in a long string of Chinese space launches that have burnished national pride, as budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.
The official Xinhua news agency did not give a specific date for the launch, but said the craft was being transported to the remote Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert.
Beijing is still far from catching up with space superpowers. Russia, the United States and other countries jointly operate the International Space Station, a group to which China does not belong.
The United States will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017. Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority for its space program, which has struggled with delays and glitches.
China launched its second moon orbiter last year after it became only the third country to send its astronauts walking in space outside their orbiting craft in 2008.
It plans an unmanned moon landing and deployment of a moon rover in 2012, and the retrieval of lunar soil and stone samples around 2017. Scientists have talked about the possibility of sending a man to the moon after 2020.
China is also jostling with neighbors Japan and India for a bigger presence in space, but its plans have faced international wariness. Beijing says its aims are peaceful, and that the involvement of its military is natural given the magnitude of the undertaking.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Paul Tait)