On Monday China launched its longest manned space mission, sending two astronauts into orbit to spend a month aboard a space laboratory that is part of a broader plan to have a permanent manned space station in service around 2022.
The Shenzhou 11 blasted off on a Long March rocket at 7:30 am (2330 GMT) from the remote launch site in Jiuquan, in the Gobi desert, in images carried live on state television.
Astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong will take two days to reach the Tiangong-2 space lab, or "Heavenly Palace-2", which was launched in September. It will be the longest stay in space by Chinese astronauts, state media reported.
They will remain on board for 30 days to conduct tests on spacecraft-related technologies and scientific and engineering experiments, Xinhua said.
Shenzhou 11 is the third space voyage for Jing, who will command the mission and celebrate his 50th birthday in orbit. "Although the job is challenging, risky and dangerous, there is nothing else I'd rather do," he said, according to the China Daily.
Astronaut Chen, a 37-year-old from central Henan province with twin sons, idolised his older colleague earlier in his own career.
"I used to watch Jing on television and he always seemed so far away," he said. "But when I met him in person, my worries and anxieties disappeared."
Early on Monday, Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China's powerful Central Military Commission, met astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong and wished them well, state news agency Xinhua reported. "You are going to travel in space to pursue the space dream of the Chinese nation," Fan said. "With all the scientific and rigorous training, discreet preparation, and rich experience accumulated from previous missions, you will accomplish the glorious and tough task... We wish you success and look forward to your triumphant return."
The Tiangong-2 lab is in orbit 393 kilometres (244 miles) above Earth and has two cabins — an hermetically sealed experiment chamber that doubles as the living quarters, and a resources store holding supplies such as solar panels, engines and batteries.
Russian space system design expert Aleksandr Zheleznyakov told Xinhua that the lab's structure indicated China's design plans for its future space station, which he expected would have a core cabin with multiple docks for different modules.
The two astronauts on the Shenzhou-11 ("Divine Vessel") mission will test their own health in zero gravity, cultivate rice samples, and conduct research on cold atomic space clocks that use laser cooling technology to improve accuracy, among other projects, China Daily said.
They will be allowed a two-hour break every evening to watch movies, listen to music and make video calls home, it added.
"We prepared more than 100 kinds of food and beverages for them in space," deputy director of China's manned space engineering office Wu Ping told the paper, adding that they had access to a treadmill and exercise bike.
China is pouring billions into its military-run space programme and working to catch up with the US and Europe, with hopes to have a crewed outpost by 2022. Beijing sees the programme as symbolising the country's progress and a marker of its rising global stature, but so far China has largely replicated activities that the US and Soviet Union pioneered decades ago.
Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to the mission on Monday, urging them to aim at taking great leaps for the Chinese nation, Xinhua said.
The mission should work to ensure "the Chinese people will take bigger steps and march further" in space, and contribute "to the building of China into a space power", Xinhua cited him as saying.
In a manned space mission in 2013, three Chinese astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with a space laboratory, the Tiangong 1. Advancing China's space program is a priority for Beijing, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power. China insists its space program is for peaceful purposes.
Shenzhou 11, whose name translates as "Divine Vessel", will also carry three experiments designed by Hong Kong middle school students and selected in a science competition, including one that will take silk worms into space.
The US Defense Department has highlighted China's increasing space capabilities, saying it was pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations using space-based assets in a crisis.
China has been working to develop its space program for military, commercial and scientific purposes, but is still playing catch-up to established space powers the United States and Russia.
China's Jade Rabbit moon rover landed on the moon in late 2013 to great national fanfare, but soon suffered severe technical difficulties.
The rover and the Chang'e 3 probe that carried it there were the first "soft landing" on the moon since 1976. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had accomplished the feat earlier.
China will launch a "core module" for its first space station some time around 2018, a senior official said in April, part of a plan for a permanent manned space station in service around 2022.
With inputs from agencies