China has achieved another milestone toward the ambitious goal of building its own space station, with the launch of what it hopes is its longest-ever manned space mission.
With Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders looking on, the Shenzhou-10, which means Divine Vessel, lifted off Tuesday from a launch center in China's remote Gobi Desert.
It is taking three astronauts, including one woman crewmember, on a 15-day space mission, which is two days longer than a similar mission last year. The spacecraft will connect with the experimental space lab Tiangong-1, which serves as a prototype for a full-fledged space station.
The docking and other tests scheduled to be performed on the spacecraft are considered an important initial step toward the building of a permanent space station, which China hopes to complete by 2020.
China's space program has made major breakthroughs in a relatively short time, although it lags behind the United States and Russia in space technology and experience. In 2003, China sent its first astronaut into space. Five years later, it completed its first spacewalk.
China has now sent 11 people, including two women, to space in five manned missions.