China launched its most ambitious space mission yet on Saturday, carrying its first female astronaut and two male colleagues in an attempt to dock with an orbiting module and work on board for more than a week.
The Shenzhou 9 capsule lifted off as scheduled at 6:37 p.m. (1037 GMT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert. All systems functioned normally and, just over 10 minutes later, it opened its solar panels and entered orbit.
The launch was declared a success by space program chief Chang Wanquan, a People's Liberation Army general who sits on the ruling Communist Party's powerful central military commission _ underscoring the program's close military ties.
Female astronaut Liu Yang, 33, and two male crew members _ mission commander and veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng, 45, and newcomer Liu Wang, 43 _ are to dock the spacecraft with a prototype space lab launched last year in a key step toward building a permanent space station.
Here is a gallery of photos from the launch.