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China launches three spacefliers for rendezvous with orbital lab

As ITV's Angus Walker reports, China is aiming to become a space superpower by sending three to an experimental space station known as Tiangong 1, or Heavenly Place.

China launched its latest manned spacecraft Tuesday on a 15-day mission to practice docking with the country's orbiting laboratory.

Carrying three astronauts, the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft blasted off as scheduled at 5:38 p.m. local time (5:38 a.m. ET) from a launch pad in the Gobi desert. The launch was broadcast live on Chinese state television.

Congratulations poured in from around the world on Twitter as the spacecraft made its way into orbit. "At this very moment, I am sharing the same feeling with everyone," the Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping as saying. "I am very happy and excited."

The launch marked the start of China's fifth human space mission since 2003. Shenzhou 10's crew includes a veteran of the second mission in 2005, Nie Haisheng, as well as Zhang Xiaoguang and China's second woman astronaut, Wang Yaping. All three have served as military pilots.

The Tiangong 1 laboratory with which the spacecraft will dock was launched in September 2011, as an initial step toward putting a full-fledged space station in orbit by 2020.

The mission that began Tuesday will focus on docking maneuvers with the space lab, as well as testing methods of human and material transport, all of which are crucial to building a full space station, government spokeswoman Wu Ping said at a Monday news conference.

"So far we only conducted three automatic docking tests and a manual one," Xinhua quoted Wu as saying. "More tests are needed. We also need to further prove that our astronauts are fit for a longer stay in space and the orbiters are able to support their life and work." 

During the mission, the astronauts also will give science lessons to students back on Earth, according to a government statement.