China Launches Unmanned Space Test Flight
China's fledgling space programme launched an unmanned test flight early Wednesday, the second in a series expected to lead to a first manned space voyage as early as next year.
The state Xinhua news agency announced that Shenzhou II blasted off from Jiuquan in northwest China with a number of unidentified animals, and entered a preset orbit.
The launch was conducted in temperatures of minus 13 degrees Celsius (nine degrees Fahrenheit).
Chinese President Jiang Zemin sent a congratulatory message to the scientists, workers and People's Liberation Army servicemen involved in the manufacture and launch of the spacecraft, Xinhua said.
An official responsible for the launch said: "More unmanned test flights will be launched to pave the way for sending Chinese astronauts into space in the end."
Xinhua said Shenzhou II was composed of an orbital module, returning module and booster rockets, almost identical to how a manned spececraft would be constructed.
It added Shenzhou II was carrying "a number of special 'passengers' ... including animals and microbial cells provided by the Chinese Academy of Sciences."
"These 'passengers' are expected to join a series of experiments in space, which will be the first tests of their kind carried out by Chinese scientists," it said.
It said the spaceship was expected to return "in a few days." Western sources expect re-entry over Inner Mongolia.
During the flight, experiments on space life sciences, space materials, astronomy and physics will be conducted, Xinhua said.
Describing the launch, the agency said a green "signal bullet" shot up into the sky when the base commander ordered the start to the 30-minute countdown.
With ignition, "the rocket booster roared, took off and sped into the sky, while ejecting dazzling flames. It was 01:00 hours (Beijing time)."
The flight over the Pacific would be closely monitored by Yuanwang, a tracking vessel.
"At 01:10 hours, the rocket booster separted from the spacecraft as Shenzhou II entered the preset orbit, beginning its space voyage," Xinhua said.
In November, China spelled out plans to be a major player in space with a policy document shedding light on its ambitious programme to wire the world with satellites and put a man on the moon.
The White Paper reiterated China's commitment to the "peaceful uses of space" and underlined the growing demand for space technology in economic construction.
But it also suggested space played a key role in defence and national security, stressing the need to "protect China's national interests and build up the comprehensive national strength."
"Short-term development targets (for the next decade) are ... to realize manned spaceflight and establish an initially complete research and development and testing system for manned space projects," the paper said.
China is also known to be planning to build an indigenous space station as early as 2015.
The first Shenzhou unmanned space capsule made a surprise 21-hour, 14-orbit voyage after being launched from Jiuquan in November 1999.
A manned space flight could happen as early as next year, following at least three successful unmanned test flights, and would make China only the third country after Russia and the United States to put a man into space.
The Shenzhou capsule, based on Russian Soyuz and American Apollo designs, is expected to carry two Chinese astronauts.
China has launched nearly 300 satellites since the early 1970s.
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