BEIJING - China on Saturday launched its most ambitious space mission to date, sending its first female astronaut to the final frontier and bidding to achieve the country's first manual space docking.
Shenzhou-9 -- China's fourth manned space mission -- launched at 6:37 pm (1037 GMT) from the remote Gobi desert in the nation's northwest, state television pictures showed.
The crew was headed by Jing Haipeng, a veteran astronaut who had gone to space twice already. Liu Wang, who has been in the space programme for 14 years, will be in charge of manual docking manoeuvres.
Meanwhile Liu Yang, 33, who has created a stir in the media and online for becoming China's first woman to travel to space, will conduct aerospace medical experiments and other space tests.
At a pre-departure ceremony broadcast on state TV Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress, told the crew: "The country and the people are looking forward to your successful return."
The mission will last 13 days, during which the crew will perform experiments and the manual space docking -- a highly technical procedure that brings two vessels together in high speed orbit.
Successful completion of the rendezvous between the Shenzhou-9 ("Divine Vessel") and the Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace") module already in orbit will take China a step closer to setting up its own space station in 2020.