BEIJING (Reuters) - China successfully carried out its first docking exercise on Thursday between two unmanned spacecraft, a key test of the rising power's plans to secure a long-term manned foothold in space.
The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft joined the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module about 340 km (211 miles) above Earth, in a maneuver carried live on state television.
The 10.5 meter-long unmanned Tiangong, launched on September 29, is part of China's preparations for a space laboratory at some point in the future.
Premier Wen Jiabao and other senior leaders oversaw the operation from a command center in Beijing, a measure of the importance the government attaches to this mission and to China's space ambitions in general.
"China is now equipped with the basic technology and capacity required for the construction of a space station," chief designer Zhou Jianping was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.
"This will make it possible for China to carry out space exploration on a larger scale," he added.
Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important aspect of China's efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills needed to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods.
The next stage will be two similar docking exercises in 2012, with at least one carrying astronauts, a spokeswoman for China's space program said on Monday.
China aims to have a fully fledged space station by about 2020.
"The planned Chinese space station will be open to global scientists," Xinhua said. "(A) foreign presence might also be welcomed aboard Chinese spacecraft in the future."
Beijing is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers: the United States and Russia. The Tiangong 1 is a trial module, not the building block of a space station.
But the docking mission is the latest show of China's growing prowess in space, alongside its growing military and diplomatic presence -- at a time when budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.
Russia, the United States and other countries jointly operate the 400 ton International Space Station, to which China does not belong. But the United States will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017, and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority.
China launched its first manned space mission in 2003 when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited Earth 14 times. It launched its second moon orbiter last year after becoming only the third country to send its astronauts walking in space outside their orbiting craft in 2008.
Beijing also plans an unmanned moon landing and deployment of a moon rover in 2012. Scientists have raised the possibility of sending a man to the moon after 2020.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Tim Pearce