China successfully launched its first unmanned space laboratory Thursday in a step toward become the third country after the U.S. and Russia to run a permanent space station.

Tiangong-1, meaning Heavenly Palace-1, a 10.50-meter experimental module, was launched from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi Desert at 9:16 p.m. (1316 GMT), two days before China's National Day celebrations on Oct. 1. The 8.5-ton module blasted off aboard a Long March 2FT1 rocket.


The Long March II-F rocket loaded with China's unmanned space module Tiangong-1 lifts off from the launch pad in the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province September 29, 2011. China successfully launched an experimental craft paving the way for its first space station on Thursday amid a blaze of national pride, bringing the growing Asian power closer to matching the United States and Russia with a long-term manned outpost in space. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

After staying aloft for a month, the space lab will be accompanied by another spaceship, Shenzhou-8, and they will jointly conduct China's first space docking. After two years, two more experimental modules will be launched for additional tests. Next on the cards would be the actual space station, which is expected to be operational by 2020.

The box car-sized Tiangong-1 will orbit 350 km above the Earth at a speed of 7.8 km per second. It will conduct surveys of Chinese farmland and conduct experiments involving growing crystals in zero gravity.

This is a significant test. We've never done such a thing before, Lu Jinrong, the launch center's chief engineer, told the official Xinhua news agency.

China's ambitious space station project, which is not yet formally named, also calls for landing on the moon, possibly with astronauts.

According to reports, research and development is in progress for a much bigger rocket to carry heavier components of the future space station. If successfully developed, the new rocket will burn less environmentally damaging liquid-oxygen-kerosene fuels, the Chinese say.

China launched its first manned flight in 2003. Compared with the 16-nation International Space Station, with a room of 15 cubic meters for two to three astronauts to conduct research, China's space station will be considerably smaller. After its completion, the Chinese space station will weigh about 60 tons.

The International Space Station is scheduled to end its operations and plunge back to the Earth around 2020.