BEIJING (AP) — China moved one step closer to setting up its own space station early Thursday, with two spacecraft docking successfully above the earth.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency said the unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou 8 docked with the Tiangong 1 module now in orbit as China moved ahead with its most ambitious space project to date. Shenzhou 8 launched Tuesday from a base in far western China.
China launched its own space station program after being turned away in its repeated attempts to join the 16-nation International Space Station. That was largely on objections from the United States, which is wary of the Chinese space program's military links.
Xinhua said China joins the U.S. and Russia as the only countries to master the space docking technique.
In terms of technology, the launch of the Tiangong-1 places China about where the U.S. was in the 1960s during the Gemini program. But space experts have said that China progresses farther than the U.S. did with each launch it undertakes.
Experts see no explicit military function for the Chinese space station.
President Hu Jintao praised the docking in a message from France, where he is ahead of the Group of 20 summit of economic powers. Premier Wen Jiabao and other top officials watched the docking from an aerospace center in Beijing, Xinhua reported.
China plans two more space missions — at least one of them manned — to meet up with the Tiangong 1 module next year for further practice.
Plans call for launching two other experimental modules for more tests before the actual station is launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.
At about 60 tons when completed, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the International Space Station, which is expected to continue operating through 2028.
China launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch humans into orbit. The Chinese space program also calls for one day landing on the moon, possibly with astronauts.