China will launch a spacecraft this month to conduct its first manned space docking, the latest step in a plan aimed at giving the country a permanent space station by 2020.
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its carrier rocket have already been moved to the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China, the Xinhua news agency said on Saturday, quoting the country's manned space program.
The launch - China's first manned space mission since September 2008 - would occur "sometime in mid-June", it said.
Officials said the mission would involve three astronauts manually docking with the Tiangong-1 module that is orbiting Earth.
In March state media said China may send its first woman into space this year, after including female astronauts in the team training for its first manned space docking.
Niu Hongguang, deputy commander-in-chief of the manned space program, has said the Shenzhou-9 crew may include female astronauts, Xinhua reported.
China sent its first person into space in 2003 and has since conducted several manned missions.
After the space rendezvous, two of the astronauts will move temporarily into the Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace), where they will perform scientific experiments.
One of crew will remain on board the spacecraft in case of an emergency, according to the official quoted by Xinhua.
In November, an unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft returned to Earth after completing two space dockings with Tiangong-1 in the nation's first-ever "space kiss". This delicate manoeuvre, successfully conducted by the Russians and Americans in the 1960s, involves bringing together two vessels in high-speed orbit.
Tiangong-1, China's first space station module, was launched in September.
China sees its space program as a symbol of its global stature and growing technical expertise.
The current program aims to provide China with a space station in which a crew can live independently for several months, as at the old Russian Mir facility or the International Space Station.
In 2003, China became the third country to send humans into space (after Russia and America) and is looking into sending astronauts to the moon.
No one has been back to the moon since the last US Apollo landing in December 1972.
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