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China launches its first space lab module

China has taken its first major steps into space over the last decade, sending out its first astronaut in 2003 and making its first spacewalk in 2008. Last week, the country achieved another milestone by successfully launching the first module in its planned space lab.

The unmanned Tiangong 1 (which translates to “Heavenly Palace”) is the first part of a four-module spacecraft, and is intended to test orbital docking capabilities and provide some preliminary space research. The craft will be joined in November by another unmanned module, the unmanned Shenzhou 8, and and then in 2012 the manned Shenzhou 9 and 10 are scheduled to launch.

The full, 60-ton space station is expected to be completed by 2020, with Tiangong 1 offering an early look at how the separate modules will be joined in space.

China is the third country (after Russia and the United States) to develop the ability to send astronauts into space and return them safely. If this year’s two unmanned missions are successful, the Shenzhou 10 mission is expected to bring the Tiangong 1 its first crew —- a team that might include China’s first female astronaut.