BEIJING (Reuters) - China launched on Thursday an experimental craft paving the way for its first space station, bringing the growing Asian power closer to matching the United States and Russia with a long-term manned outpost in space.
The Tiangong 1, or "Heavenly Palace," blasted off from a remote site in the Gobi Desert at 9:16 pm (1316 GMT), adding a high-tech sheen to China's National Day celebrations on October 1.
Premier Wen Jiabao watched as the small, unmanned "space lab" and the Long March rocket that heaved it skyward from a pad at Jiuquan in northwest Gansu province, lifted off under clear skies, in images shown live on state television.
It is 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.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sabrina Mao; Eding by Ed Lane)