China has launched an unmanned spaceship, Shenzhou 8, in a bid to place a manned permanent space station into orbit by 2020.

Shenzhou 8 blasted off from the western city of Jiuquan on board a modified model of the Long March CZ-2F rocket and is scheduled to dock with another craft, the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module, about 340km above the earth later this week.

Shenzhou 8 has a length of nine metres, a diameter of 2.8 metres and a lift-off weight of 8.082 tons.

The launch will be followed by two more spaceships – Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 – which will join Tiangong in 2012.

The station is planned to be launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022 and is expected to be operational by 2028.