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2006-01-19 00:00

  China launched its second manned space mission, sending two astronauts into orbit as it opened a new chapter in its ambitious drive to become a global space power.

  Shenzhou VI, based on Soviet Soyuz technology, lifted off on a Long March 2F carrier rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 9 am (0100 GMT) for a five-day mission carrying air force pilots Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng.

  It entered a fixed orbit 21 minutes later.

  Having two crew on board is a departure from October 2003, when Yang Liwei spent 21 hours on a solo odyssey —— a mission that made China only the third country after the United States and former Soviet Union to achieve the feat.

  Some 40 seconds after Wednesday's launch the craft disappeared into the clouds, but a camera on board showed Nie waving as the launch centre said lift off and all signals were "normal".

  "I feel good," said Fei in his first tranmission from the craft.

  Fei, 40, and Nie, 41, were seen off by Premier Wen Jiabao, who was at the launch pad to drum up nationalistic sentiment, saying he believed "the astronauts will accomplish the glorious and sacred mission".

  "You will once again show that the Chinese people have the will, confidence and capability to mount scientific peaks ceaselessly," Wen said, adding that the whole country expects "their victorious return from the mission."

  Other top leaders including President Hu Jintao and and Vice President Zeng Qinglong watched the event at the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Centre, Chinese mission control.

  Snow was falling at the launch site shortly before lift off but stopped at about the time the astronauts entered their craft, Xinhua news agency reported.

  The fact that Wednesday's mission carried two astronauts reflects the twin purposes of China's space program, which aims for both scientific gains and kudos at home and abroad.

  "Part of it is technical. If you are two people, you can do more complicated and more sophisticated types of work and experimentation," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program at the US Naval War College.

  "Part of its also too is prestige. Two people is harder than one person," she said.

  Shenzhou VI is expected to circle around the Earth for the next 119 hours, or nearly five days, before landing in the Inner Mongolian grasslands.

  The craft is based on the robust and thoroughly tested Soviet design for the Soyuz vessel, and consists of three modules.

  These include the orbital module where scientific experiments are carried out; the re-entry capsule where the astronauts will spend most of their time; and the service module, which contains fuel and air, solar panels and other technical gear.

  Unlike Yang Liwei two years ago, the two astronauts will leave their capsule for lengthy experiments in the orbital module at the nose of the spacecraft, observers said.

  "They'll do quite a lot of medical tests, they'll take blood tests, urine tests, and they will also work out what kind of space food works for them" said Brian Harvey, the Dublin-based author of a book on China's space ambitions.

  "Because ultimately what they are planning is a space station…… and to do that they will need to learn how do they survive on longer missions."

  The flight of Shenzhou VI will also be a thorough and comprehensive test of China's tracking network, which includes tracking stations as far away as Namibia and four tracking ships placed around the oceans of the world.

  In Jiuquan city, several hours' drive away from the satellite launch center, a sense of local pride was clearly visible.

  "Wishing a successful launch of Shenzhou VI," said a large red poster in front of one of the city's hotels, while billboards advertised special "Shenzhou Rice Wine."

  "We're very happy about all this," said Ma Li, a teenage resident of Jiuquan city. "It's amazing that we Chinese gradually have the know-how to pull this kind of thing off," she said.







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