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Chinese 'nauts reach Heaven after 8-minute coupling

Three taikonauts safely aboard Tiangong-1 after spaceship docking

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Three Chinese astronauts floated into the Tiangong-1 lab module just after 11am BST, after the first docking of a manned spacecraft this morning.

The taikonauts aboard the Shenzhou-9 spaceship made their way onto Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, around three hours after completing the automatic docking, the Xinhua news agency reported.

The berthing procedure started at 5am BST this morning with the Shenzhou-9 at 52km away from the Heavenly Palace. The craft then drifted slowly over to its lab partner before making first contact at 7.07am. The docking was done and dusted in less than eight minutes.

The two male taikonauts and one female floated into the Tiangong-1 ahead of schedule to become the first tenants of the 15 cubic metre (530ft3) cabin. The first to enter was Jing Haipeng, followed by Liu Wang and Liu Yang, according to the Xinhua report.

China had already managed an unmanned docking with the Heavenly Palace and a manned spacecraft in space, but this is the first time taikonauts have been aboard for the docking and gone onto the lab module, the first building block of China's proposed space station.

It is also the first time that China has sent a woman into space. Liu Yang, a 33-year-old major in the People's Liberation Army as well as a member of the Communist Party of China joined commanding officer Jing Haipeng and astronaut Liu Wang on the mission.

China wants to build its very own space station by 2020, which is likely to be when the International Space Station goes into retirement. ®

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