BEIJING: China's space mission will conduct an automatic docking Monday, as the three astronauts on board prepare to perform the nation's first manual version of the complex manoeuvre, state media said.
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft took off from the remote Gobi desert in the country's northwest on Saturday on China's fourth manned mission, carrying its first female astronaut into space.
The crew's main task during their 13-day mission is to carry out China's first manual space docking, a procedure that will take the country a step closer to setting up its own space station by 2020.
But ahead of that, the Shenzhou-9 ("Divine Vessel") and the Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace") module already in orbit will dock automatically at around 0600 GMT, the official Xinhua news agency said, giving a later time than earlier reports.
The astronauts will enter the orbiting Tiangong-1 around 20 minutes later, Xinhua said. Earlier reports said the Shenzhou-9 would remain attached to the space capsule for six days before parting in preparation for manual docking.
China aims to complete construction of a space station by 2020, a goal that requires it to perfect docking technology -- a delicate manoeuvre that the Russians and Americans successfully completed in the 1960s.
The technique is hard to master because the two vessels, placed in the same orbit and revolving around the Earth at thousands of kilometres per hour, must come together very gently to avoid destroying each other.
President Hu Jintao has said the operation would mark a "major breakthrough in the country's manned space programme", which is gearing up just as the United States scales back its space exploration activities.
Docking manually requires huge accuracy and is necessary in case of any problems with the automatic docking, such as in the event the control centre cannot do it remotely from Earth.
The team -- headed by Jing Haipeng, a veteran astronaut on his third space mission -- has rehearsed the procedure more than 1,500 times in simulations.