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A Chinese Long March 2F rocket launches on the Shenzhou 9 mission, China's first manned space docking flight and first flight of a female astronaut, on June 16, 2012 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.
CREDIT: China Manned Space Engineering Office
China is gearing up to perform its first-ever manned space docking Monday (June 18), a feat that would put it in the company of history's two greatest spacefaring nations, the United States and Russia.
China's Shenzhou 9 space capsule — which launched Saturday (June 16) carrying three astronauts, including the country's first female spaceflyer — is expected to link up with the unmanned Tiangong 1 space lab around 3 p.m. Monday Beijing time (3 a.m. EDT; 0700 GMT), according to Chinese media reports.
Shenzhou 9 will dock with Tiangong 1 twice, with the first hookup being automated. At some point, the two spacecraft will separate, and the three taikonauts, as China's astronauts are known, will perform the second docking manually.
Forty-six-year-old Jing Haipeng leads the taikonaut crew, which also includes Liu Wang, 42, and 33-year-old Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut. All are members of the Communist Party of China and former pilots with the People's Liberation Army; Jing flew on China's last manned spaceflight, which took place in 2008.
Two of the taikonauts will live aboard Tiangong 1 during the 13-day mission, while one will stay aboard Shenzhou 9 at all times in case of emergency, Chinese officials have said.
Shenzhou-9's flight is considered a key step in China's plan to build a permanently staffed space station in Earth orbit. The nation hopes to have a 60-ton station and up and running by 2020. (For comparison, the International Space Station weighs about 430 tons.)
Analysts say China's exclusion from the ISS, largely on objections from the United States, was one of the key spurs for it to pursue an independent program 20 years ago.
While Shenzhou 9's flight is China's first attempt at a crewed space docking, the nation has successfully linked up two robotic spacecraft in orbit. In November, the unmanned Shenzhou 8 craft docked twice with Tiangong 1 before returning safely to Earth.
Shenzhou 9's mission is China's fourth manned spaceflight, following taikonaut launches in 2003, 2005 and 2008. Another manned mission to Tiangong 1 — which launched to orbit in September 2011 — could come later this year, Chinese officials have said.
Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall
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