Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 14:12 UK

Lift-off for China space mission

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China's Shenzhou VII rocket blasts off

China has launched its third manned space mission - which is to feature the country's first spacewalk.

The Shenzhou VII capsule soared into orbit atop a Long-March II-F rocket from the Jiuquan spaceport in Gansu province in the northwest of China.

The 70-hour flight will include a spacewalk undertaken by 42-year-old fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang.

Mr Zhai is joined on the mission by two other "yuhangyuan" (astronauts) - Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng.

Astronaut training
The astronauts have been training in a water tank
The rocket lit up the darkness as it blasted off from Jiuquan at 2110 Beijing Time (1310 GMT).

China's president Hu Jintao met the three astronauts before the lift-off, wishing them success on the nation's riskiest space mission yet.

"You will definitely accomplish this glorious and sacred mission. The motherland and the people are looking forward to your triumphant return," President Hu told the yuhangyuan, who were dressed in flight suits and behind glass to avoid being exposed to germs.

The rocket will put the Shenzhou capsule in a near-circular orbit more than 300km above the Earth.

Mr Zhai will conduct his extra-vehicular activity (EVA) on either Friday or Saturday.

When he steps out into space, Mr Zhai is expected to wear a Chinese-made space suit and will be tethered to the capsule for safety. Liu Boming will monitor the activity, presumably to reel the spacewalker back inside if there is an emergency.

Jiuquan (BBC)
1958: Base for spaceflights built at Jiuquan, in Gobi desert
April 1970: China launches its first satellite into space
1990-2002: Shenzhou I-IV are launched to develop systems
Oct 2003: The first manned space mission launches on Shenzhou V
Oct 2005: The Shenzhou VI mission takes two men into space
Oct 2007: Chang'e-1 orbiter sent on unmanned mission to the Moon

Mr Zhai will retrieve an externally mounted experiment and oversee the release of a satellite.

At the end of the mission, the Shenzhou re-entry capsule will target a landing in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Dr Roger Launius, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, told BBC News: "It is a demonstration of technological virtuosity. It's a method of showing the world they are second to none - which is a very important objective for [China]."

China became only the third nation after the United States and Russia to independently put a man in space when Yang Liwei, another fighter pilot, went into orbit on the Shenzhou V mission in October 2003.

Two years later, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng completed a five-day flight on Shenzhou VI.

According to the Associated Press, China's official news agency posted an article on its website prior to the lift-off that was written as if Shenzhou VII had already been launched into space.

The article reportedly carried a date of 27 September and came complete with a dialogue between the astronauts.

Chinese media report that this latest mission is the "most critical step" in the country's "three-step" space programme.

These stages are: sending a human into orbit, docking spacecraft together to form a small laboratory and, ultimately, building a large space station.

The Shenzhou VIII and IX missions are expected to help set up a space laboratory complex in 2010.

China launched an unmanned Moon probe last year about one month after rival Japan blasted its own lunar orbiter into space.

Long-March II-F (AFP)
Crowds turned out to see the Long-March II-F rocket move to the launch pad




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