China is taking the next step towards its ambitious goal of building its own space station, with the launch of its longest-ever manned space mission.
The Shenzhou-10, which means Divine Vessel, is scheduled to lift off Tuesday from a launch center in China's remote Gobi Desert. It will take 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 an experimental space laboratory known as 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.
So far, China has sent eight people to space in four manned missions.