29/09/2011 11:20 BST | Updated 29/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Tiangong-1, China's First Space Lab, Launched From Jiuquan Spaceport

China has launched its first space lab as part of its preparations for the construction of a fully-fledged manned space station.

The unmanned Tiangong-1 craft took off from the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert at 13:16 GMT on Thursday.

The 10.5m-long laboratory is designed to test orbital docking, a skill vital for the success of any future space station. China plans to build a 60-tonne orbital platform by 2020.

The lab will orbit the Earth for about one month before conducting docking tests with the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft.

If the first test is a success the Chinese will conduct two further tests with manned spacecraft, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10, over the next two years. The lab has room for two to three astronauts to live and work.

Tiangong means "heavenly palace" in Chinese.

China was the third country after Russia and the United States to develop the technology to successfully send and return astronauts to space.

The China National Space Administration sent its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, in to orbit in 2003. The construction of a space station would further cement China's position as a serious player in space exploration.

The liftoff comes as the United States appears to have scaled back its ambitions. Nasa retired its 30-year old space shuttle programme over the summer and is now reliant on Russia to send supplies and crew to the International Space Station (ISS)