China is set to enter its own Space Age with the launch of its first independent space lab module this weekend.
The unmanned, Tiangong-1, which translates to Heavenly Palace, will blast off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert in northwest China Thursday or Friday, barring any complications.
The three-story cigar-shaped module will be used to practice robotics and docking needed for any eventual space station, Chinese officials told Xinhua, the China's state news agency.
The launch was originally set for Tuesday, but that launch was hampered by poor weather at the launch center, forcing officials to reschedule the date pending better weather.
If successful, the rocket launch will mark China's first rendezvous and docking mission.
Once launched, Tiangong-1 will remain in orbit for a two-year mission during which time it'll dock with three spacecrafts: Shenzhou 8, Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10. Completing unmanned docking procedures is necessary for China's plans of establishing a 60-ton manned space station by the year 2020.
Shenzhou 8 is expected to dock with Tiangong-I, China's first prototype space lab, after its launch in early November.
If this succeeds, the module will then dock with two other spacecrafts, Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10, in 2012, both of which will have at least one astronaut on board, AFP reported.
Engineers began final preparations prior to the launch of the spacecraft on Monday at the Juiquan Satellite Launch Center. So far, a full ground simulation has been done to make sure the module and its carrier rocket Long March 2F are prepared for the journey.
This is a significant test. We've never done such a thing before, said Lu Jinrong, the launch center's chief engineer was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
Space experts are concerned because Tiangong-1 and much of the other equipment is new and has never been used on actual mission.
Tiangong is bigger and heavier than the Shenzhou spaceships China had developed as a means of transporting astronauts from the Earth to space, said Yang Hong, its chief designer.
Just a month ago, a Long March carrier 2C rocket malfunctioned and failed to send an experimental satellite into orbit. The Tiangong-1 mission was later rescheduled to allow engineers more time to fix any problems.
The Tingong-1 stands 10.4 meters tall and weighs 8.5 tons. It is composed of two modules, one of which will eventually house astronauts.