China launched an experimental module to lay the groundwork for a future space station on Thursday, underscoring its ambitions to become a major space power.

The box car-sized Tiangong-1 module was shot into space from the Jiuquan launch centre on the edge of the Gobi Desert aboard a Long March 2FT1 rocket around 9:16 a.m. ET.

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Tiangong-1 will stay in low-Earth orbit for the next two years so other Chinese spacecraft can conduct unmanned and manned docking tests with it. (Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre/Reuters)

After moving it into orbit, China plans to launch an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft to practise docking manoeuvres with the module, possibly within the next few weeks. Two more missions, at least one of them manned, are to meet up with it next year for further practice, with astronauts staying for up to one month.

The 8.5-tonne module, whose name translates as Heavenly Palace-1, is to stay aloft for two years, after which two other experimental modules are to be launched for additional tests before the actual station is launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.

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"This is a significant test. We've never done such a thing before," Lu Jinrong, the launch centre's chief engineer, was quoted as saying by the official state news agency, Xinhua.

The space station, which is yet to be formally named, is the most ambitious project in China's exploration of space, which also calls for landing on the moon, possibly with astronauts.

China launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch humans into orbit and generating huge amounts of national pride for the Communist government.

However, habitual secrecy and the space program's close links with the military have inhibited co-operation with other space programs — including the 16-nation International Space Station.

At about 60 tonnes when completed, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the ISS, which is expected to continue operating through 2028. China applied repeatedly to join the space station, but was rebuffed largely on objections from the U.S., prompting it to adopt a go-it-alone strategy.

While the program has proceeded with no apparent major problems, the launch of the Tiangong-1 module was delayed for one year for technical reasons, and then rescheduled again after a Long March 2C rocket similar to the Long March 2F failed to reach orbit in August. The incident with the rocket was investigated and problems reportedly were resolved.