BEIJING (AFP) - China will launch three astronauts into space this month to dock with an experimental space-module, state-media said on Monday, marking the latest step towards the country's aim of building a space station.
The Shenzhou-10 spacecraft has entered the "final stage of preparations," for a launch "in the middle of June," China's official Xinhua news agency said, citing a spokesperson for the country's manned space program.
The craft will dock with the Tiangong-1 space-laboratory, Xinhua said, making the mission a crucial step on the way to China's goal of building a full space station capable of housing astronauts for extended periods.
Astronauts on board will "teach a lesson to a group of students via a video feed" while in orbit, after they launch from a base in north-west China, Xinhua said.
China's space capabilities lag behind those of the US and Russia, but it has ambitious plans for its space programme, including plans to land a man on the moon and build a station orbiting earth by 2020, according to an official white paper.
China first sent a human into space in 2003. The 2012 Shenzhou-9 launch became China's longest-ever space mission and was notable for including the nation's first woman astronaut among its three-member crew.
Beijing sees its multi-billion-dollar space programme as a symbol of its rising global stature, growing technical expertise, and the ruling Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
The Asian superpower has been ramping up its manned activities as the United States, long the leader in the field, has scaled back some of its programmes, such as retiring its space shuttle fleet.