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China's second woman 'naut blasts off for coupling in HEAVEN

Wang and pals test the cosmic waters for Chinese space station

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China has sent its second woman taikonaut into space on a mission that will light the way to a permanent Chinese base in orbit.

Wang Yapin, and her male colleagues Commander Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang, blasted off from Inner Mongolia at 0938 GMT today. Their 15-day mission, code-named "Shenzhou-10", is the longest ever attempted by taikonauts.

They will dock with the space lab Tiangong-1, which means Heavenly Palace 1 and is effectively an early prototype of a fully fledged Chinese space station. The People's Republic is hoping to get a proper base in space operational by 2020, but it needs to practice docking and other critical manoeuvres before attempting to build an even more heavenly palace up there in orbit - which is where Wang and her pals come in.

The first woman taikonaut was part of a squad that successfully docked with the Tiangong-1 last year, the first time Chinese 'nauts had pulled off this tricky feat.

China is desperate to plant its flag in the heavens, but it is way behind Russia and America, which both raced into space and occupied small patches of it for more than 50 years. Beijing sent its first mission up to space in 2003, but judging by the rate of its economic growth in recent years, there's every chance China will achieve its dreams of space supremacy.

So far, America has kept China away from the International Space Station, which is expected to be retired and plunge into the sea in 2020 - the same date Beijing hopes to power up its own orbiting platform.

The Communist state is also keen to send a mission to the Moon, prompting NASA to ask very politely if taikonauts would keep 75 metres away from the Apollo 11 touch-down site and 225 metres away from Apollo 17's lunar landing spot. NASA wants to make sure Man's first footprints on the Moon aren't disturbed, along with all the other kit it's left up there.

Of course, China has every right to tell the Americans to sod off and head along anyway. After all, what has NASA got to hide? ®

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