China's first space lab module Tiangong-1 blasted off at 9:16 p.m. Beijing Time (1316 GMT, 8:16 a.m. CDT) Thursday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gobi desert.
The unmanned module, carried by a Long March 2F T1 rocket, will test docking with an unmanned spacecraft later this year, paving the way for China to become the third country in the world to operate a permanent space station around 2020.
Tiangong-1 will orbit Earth for about one month to await Shenzhou 8's arrival. Once the two vehicles rendezvous, they will conduct China's first docking at an altitude of 340 kilometers (211 miles) above Earth's surface.
After two docking tests, Shenzhou 8 will depart and Tiangong-1 will await Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 in the next two years, according to the plan for China's manned space program.