China launches first module for new space station
The Tianhe core module, which houses life support equipment and a living space for astronauts, was launched from Wenchang in China's tropical Hainan province on a Long-March 5B rocket.
The space station is expected to become fully operational in 2022 after about 10 missions to bring up more parts and assemble them in orbit.
Billions of dollars have been poured into space exploration as China seeks to assert its rising global stature and growing technological might, following in the footsteps of the United States and Russia.
Live footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed space programme employees cheering as the rocket powered its way through the atmosphere billowing flames from the launch site.
Once completed, the Chinese space station is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at between 400km and 450km above Earth for 15 years.
While China does not plan to use its space station for international cooperation on the scale of the ISS, Beijing has said it is open to foreign collaboration without giving details of the scope of that cooperation.
The country has come a long way since its first satellite in 1970. It put the first Chinese “taikonaut” in space in 2003 and sent a probe into Mars' orbit earlier this year.
China launched the Tiangong-1 lab, its first prototype module intended to lay the groundwork for the permanent station, in September 2011.