BEIJING — China will launch its next manned rocket in the middle of this month, carrying three astronauts to an experimental space module, state media said on Monday, the latest stage of an ambitious plan to build a space station.
The Shenzhou 10 space ship and its rocket had already been moved to the launch area at a remote site in the Gobi desert, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Once in orbit, the Shenzhou 10 will link up with the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module, which was moved into the correct orbiting position last month.
Chinese astronauts carried out a manned docking with the module for the first time last June.
Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important hurdle in China's efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods.
China 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 this summer's mission will be the latest show of China's growing prowess in space and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.
It will be China's fifth manned space mission since 2003 when astronaut Yang Liwei became the country's first person in orbit.
China also plans an unmanned moon landing and deployment of a moon rover. Scientists have raised the possibility of sending a man to the moon, but not before 2020.
While Beijing insists its space program is for peaceful purposes, a Pentagon report last month highlighted China's increasing space capabilities and said Beijing was pursuing a variety of activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.