Beijing: As two of its unmanned spacecraft successfully docked for the first time high above the Earth, China on Thursday termed it as a major technological breakthrough in its ambitious programme to establish a manned space station by 2020.

The Shenzhou-8 spacecraft which was launched two day ago silently coupled the Tiangong-1 module, sent into space last month more than 343 km above Earth, in a manoeuvre carried live on state television.

The assembly already has orbited Earth six times with onboard instruments working normally, Wu Ping, spokesperson of the China's manned space programme said.

The success of the docking procedure makes China the third country in the world, after the United States and Russia, to master the technique, moving the country one step closer to establishing its own space station.

Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 will fly together for about 12 days and then conduct another space docking at an appropriate time, Wu said. After that Shenzhou-8 would return back to home on November 17.

China plans to send a manned mission next year in which a woman astronaut could take part to attempt similar docking.
President Hu Jintao, who is in France for the G-20 summit, sent a congratulatory message on the success of the country's first-ever space docking.

"Breakthroughs in and acquisition of space docking technologies are vital to the three-phase development strategy of our manned space programme," Hu said.

For more 10 years, China has made breakthroughs in key technologies and formed a set of design, production and experiment systems for spacecraft space docking, Wu said.