Beijing: China took a crucial step towards fulfilling its ambition to set up a manned space station by completing its first successful docking high above Earth, state media reported.

The Shenzhou VIII spacecraft joined onto the Tiangong-1 experimental module at 1738 GMT, silently coupling more than 343 kilometres above the Earth's surface, the Xinhua news agency said.

The spacecraft, whose name translates as "divine vessel", is a modified version of the capsules that took the first Chinese astronauts into space as part of the rising power's ambitious exploration programme.

China aims to complete construction of a space station by 2020, a goal that requires it to perfect docking technology -- a delicate manoeuvre that the Russians and Americans successfully completed in the 1960s.

The technology is hard to master because the two vessels, placed in the same orbit and revolving around Earth at high speed, must come together progressively to avoid destroying each other.

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.

China began its manned spaceflight programme in 1990 after buying Russian technology and in 2003 became the third country to send humans into space, after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

In September 2008, the Shenzhou VII, piloted by three astronauts, carried out China's first space walk.

The world's first space docking was achieved in 1966, when the manned US spacecraft Gemini 8 docked with an unmanned Agena Target Vehicle.

Currently Mir space station is operated by Russia and United States. China’s proposed station is smaller than that.

"To link up two vehicles travelling at 7.8 km per second in orbit, with a margin of error of no more than 20 centimetres, is like 'finding a needle in a haystack'," Zhou said.

The Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 will separate after flying together for 12 days.

After that a second docking procedure will be conducted.

Without this key know-how, exploration of the moon and beyond requires carrier rockets with significant amounts of thrust.

China does not currently possess rockets of this magnitude, he said.

The interior of both the Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 is an actual environment in which astronauts can live and work.

After the Shenzhou-8 tests, the Tiangong-1 will remain a target orbiter for more docking procedures in 2012 by the Shenzhou-9 and -10 spacecraft, at least one of which will be manned to conduct manual docking.

Two female astronauts are now believed to be on the active duty roster for future Shenzhou missions, said Chen Shanguang, director of the Astronaut Center of China (ACC).

"We must assess both male and female astronauts to verify if human beings can live in space, as there are huge differences between men and women in spite of their common generalities," Chen said.

"Space exploration activities would be incomplete without the participation of female astronauts," Chen said.

The Chinese spacecraft also feature collaborative space experiments under the framework of a Chinese-German science and technology cooperation.

German scientists designed bio-incubators for the experiments, while their Chinese counterparts were in charge of the development of control equipment, China's manned space program spokeswoman Wu Ping said.

(Agencies)