China will launch a manned spacecraft this month, state news agency Xinhua said.

Saturday's announcement is the latest step in a programme aimed at setting up a permanent space station by 2020.

The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its carrier rocket have already been moved to the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China, Xinhua said, quoting an official with the country's manned space programme.

The launch of China's first manned space mission since September 2008 would occur "sometime in mid June", the news agency said.

State media earlier reported that the mission would involve three astronauts manually docking with the Tiangong-1 module currently orbiting the Earth.

After the space rendezvous, the astronauts will move temporarily into the Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace), where they will perform scientific experiments.

'Space kiss'

In November, an unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft returned to Earth after completing two space dockings with Tiangong-1 in the nation's first ever hard-to-master "space kiss", bringing together two vessels in high speed orbit.

Mastering space docking technology is a delicate manoeuvre that the Russians and Americans successfully completed in the 1960s.

Tiangong-1, China's first space station module, was launched in September.

China sees its space programme as a symbol of its global stature, growing technical expertise, and the Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.

The current programme aims to provide China with a space station in which a crew can live independently for several months, as at the old Russian Mir facility or the International Space Station.

Source: Agencies