A rocket carrying the Tiangong-1 space lab was launched in the Gobi desert, ascending over the Pacific for a destination 350km above the Earth. Initially unmanned, the 10.5 meter space module will be visited by Chinese astronauts sometime next year. The self-operating module will be supported by another spacecraft named Shenzhou 8, which will launch after a few weeks. The Tiangong, which translates as Heavenly Palace in Chinese, will then attempt to link up to the Shenzhou 8, to start what is going to be China's very own space station. If the procedure is successful, two manned space expeditions by Shenzhou 9 and 10 are expected in 2012. The Chinese astronauts aboard will then spend a maximum of two weeks within the space module.
Described as the second step in what Beijing officials report as as a three step strategy, the Tiangong project will culminate in the construction of the space station, which is expected to weigh around 60 tonnes. Upon completion, the station would likely be dwarfed in size by the 400-tonne International Space Station, but it's still a significant accomplishment. The core module is estimated to weigh between 20-22 tons, bolstered by two smaller laboratory facilities. Supplies such as basic necessities and fuel will be transported by space freighters, similar to how the ISS is restocked by robotic cargo ships. With billions of dollars of funding poured in by China, its foray into space includes two lunar satellites launched into the Moon's orbit, with another space voyage intended to place a rover on to the lunar surface. Rockets with greater lift capabilities will be deployed eventually, such as the Long March 5, which has a 20-tonne capacity. This massive rocket will be essential in completing the space station.
After two years, the Tiangong-1 will be replaced and then decommissioned into the depths of the Pacific Ocean.