China has launched its third unmanned spaceship into orbit as part of a quest to send astronauts into space before the end of the decade.
The Shenzhou III spacecraft successfully blasted off at 2200 hours Monday night from China's northwestern Gansu Province.
Chinese media report that Chinese President Jiang Zemin was present at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Mr. Jiang congratulated scientists, military and technical personnel, saying the launch "showed the Chinese people's spirit of constantly striving to become stronger." He says China's success in space will benefit the country economically and militarily.
The Shenzhou III is equipped to sustain human life and is carrying dummy astronauts, hooked up to monitors to measure physical changes in orbit. The craft is also equipped with a series of scientific experiments.
China's decade-old manned space program is a major source of national prestige. Beijing aims to stage a manned flight by the end of the decade, joining the United States and the Russia as the only countries to have sent human beings into space.
The spaceship is expected to circle the earth once every 90 minutes. It is not clear how long the Shenzhou III will stay in orbit.
China has not stated exactly when it plans to attempt a manned flight, but officials have been quoted as saying that it could happen next year, though at least one more unmanned test flight is required.
The first Shenzhou spacecraft was launched in November 1999. Last year, China sent a monkey, dog, rabbit and snails into orbit aboard its second unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft.