China has launched the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, marking the start of another key mission in the nation's quest to assemble a permanent space station within a decade.

Shenzhou-8 blasted off on board a Long March-2F carrier rocket early on Tuesday from the remote Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in north-western China's Gansu province.
 
It was scheduled to dock with the Tiangong-1 space capsule within two days of the launch and stay linked for about 12 days, Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said.

Shenzhou-8 would then perform a second rendezvous and docking manoeuvre before it detached again to allow the re-entry module to return to Earth on November 17, Wu said.

The two-year Tiangong-1 mission was launched on September 29 to provide the target vessel for Shenzhou-8.

Astronauts are scheduled to visit Tiangong-1 twice next year on the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spacecraft, which are designed to link with Tiangong-1 to form a mini-space station.

In 2003, China became the third nation to launch an astronaut into space, after Russia and the United States.

Source: Agencies