Beijing: China on Thursday successfully put into orbit its maiden space lab Tiangong-1, a test-bed for a larger 60-tonne space station to be put in place by 2020.
Watched by the entire ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership, the Long March-2FT1 was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China at 2116 hrs and reached its intended orbit, about 350 km above the earth in 10 minutes.
The launch, telecast live was watched with considerable excitement and apprehension as a similar Long March rocket, regarded as the work horse of China's burgeoning space programme failed to put a satellite into space last month.
But the Long March-2FT1 rocket, modified to carry the space lab Tiangong-1, meaning Heavenly Palace, put the module in orbit in a text book launch.
President Hu Jintao, Vice President Xi Jinping along with top political leaders of the ruling Communist Party watched the launch from the command and control room in Beijing, while Prime Minister Wen Jiabao along with top military leaders watched it from the launch station.
The mission was a complete success, a military official who was in-charge of the programme announced.
As the module was successfully put into orbit, Hu other leaders congratulated the scientists.
China has said that its space station, which is considerably smaller than the current 450-tonne International Space Station Mir will last for around a decade and support three astronauts working on microgravity science, space radiation biology and astronomy. The launch makes China the third country after the US and Russia to develop space rendezvous technology.
The "Heavenly Palace-1," speaks for a dream home the Chinese have long envisioned in the sky. In Chinese folklore, a heavenly palace often refers to the place in outer space where deities reside, the official media said.
The Tiangong-1, will dock with China's Shenzhou-8, -9 and -10 spacecraft to be sent in the next few years.
Unmanned docking procedures will be essential for China's eventual goal of establishing a manned space station around 2020.
According to the China National Space Administration (CNSA), Tiangong-1 is an eight-tonne-class space lab prototype with a cylinder-shaped body and two docking ports on its ends.
Both the Tiangong-1 and Shengzhou 8 are unmanned.
"The Shenzhou-9 and 10 will be piloted if the rendezvous result of the Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 turn out well," an official recently said.
Space docking technology is key for building a space station and docking failures can have catastrophic consequences, he said.
China currently embarked on an ambitious space programme which included creating a new satellite system to rival GPS, a second moon mission to land a rover as a follow up to its successful lunar probe, Chang'e-II.
It also demonstrated its ability to shoot down satellites by knocking out one of its own satellites a few years ago.