China has launched its first female space traveller aboard a rocket that blasted off from the Gobi Desert on one of the country's most ambitious space missions yet.
Liu Yang, a 34-year-old air force pilot, and two male taikonauts, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, were aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft as it left the Earth on Saturday on a voyage that will see it dock with an orbiting space module
Two of the crew will live and work inside the bus-sized Tiangong 1 space module for a week to test its life-support systems while the third will remain in the capsule to deal with unexpected emergencies as China bids to become only the third nation with a permanent base orbiting Earth.
State media have said the mission will last about 10 days before the taikonauts travel back to Earth in the capsule that will land in the grasslands of western China with the help of parachutes.
Success in docking, and in living and working aboard the Tiangong 1, would smooth the way for more ambitious projects, such as sending a taikonaut to the moon, and add to China's international prestige in line with its growing economic prowess.
If completed, the mission will put China alongside the United States and Russia as the only countries to have independently maintained space stations, a huge boost to Beijing's ambitions of becoming a space power.
The mission demonstrated China's "commitment to its long-term human spaceflight plan", said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space programme at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island.
She said its success would "demonstrate the technological capabilities requisite for a future permanent space station".
Excluded from space station
Still, that is some years away. The Tiangong 1 is only a prototype, and the plan is to eventually replace it with a permanent, and bigger, space station due for completion around 2020.
Analysts say China's exclusion from the International Space Station, largely on objections from the United States, was one of the key spurs for it to pursue an independent programme 20 years ago, which reaches a high point with Saturday's launch.
China first launched a man into space in 2003 followed by a two-man mission in 2005 and a three-man trip in 2008 that featured China's first space walk.
While operating with limited resources, China's space programme is a source of huge national pride and enjoys top-level political and military backing.
The first female taikonaut is giving the programme an additional publicity boost. State media have gushed this week about Liu, pointing out that she once successfully landed her plane after a bird strike disabled one of its engines.
As with China's other female taikonaut candidates, Liu is married and has a child, a requirement because the space programme worries that exposure to space radiation may affect fertility.