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China sends its first female astronaut to the final frontier

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 p.m. (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 program for 14 years, will be in charge of manual docking maneuvers.

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.

The Asian powerhouse achieved a similar docking in November last year, but that mission was unmanned and the procedure was conducted remotely from Earth.

“The manual space rendezvous ... is a huge test for astronauts' ability to judge spatial position, eye-hand coordination and psychological abilities,” Jing told reporters ahead of the launch.

He added that the trio would work well together after months of intense training that saw them rehearse the mission some 16 hours a day.

“One glance, one facial expression, one movement ... we understand each other thoroughly,” he said.

The team has rehearsed the procedure more than 1,500 times in simulations, Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space program, told reporters.

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The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft rocket launches from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, China, Saturday, June 16. China sent its first woman and two other astronauts into space Saturday to work on a temporary space station for about a week, in a key step toward becoming only the third nation to set up a permanent base in orbit. (AP)

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