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China is considering sending two female astronauts into space on its first manned missions to its space lab module next year.

An unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou-8, is launching this evening and will be testing space docking with Tiangong-1. If the mission is successful, China is planning Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 next year, at least one of which will be manned, spokeswoman Wu Ping told the Xinhua news agency.

Chen Shanguang, director of the Astronaut Centre of China (ACC) said two women had been selected for the possible flights.

"We must assess both male and female astronauts to verify if human beings can live in space, as there are huge differences between men and women in spite of their common generalities," Chen told Xinhua in a separate interview.

"Space exploration activities would be incomplete without the participation of female astronauts," he added.

Nine crew members in total are preparing for the manned missions and are already being trained with manual docking skills.

The seven male crew members are from the country's first batch of 14 astronauts, which includes Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut into space in 2003, Chen said.

The two women were both airfreighter pilots before enrolling in the space programme and are from the second batch of astronauts recruited in late 2009 and early 2010.

The unmanned Shenzhou-8 will dock with the Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace" two days after its launch, stay attached for 12 days, then carry out a second docking later, Wu said.

If it all goes to plan, it will make China the third country to master docking technology after the US and Russia and pave the way for China's plans to put a permanent space station in orbit in 2020. ®

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