Chinese spacecraft blasts off (VIDEO)

China is a step closer to becoming a major space power with the launch of its unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou 8. The craft is expected to dock with another vehicle, launched last month, in an unprecedented operation for the communist state.

The spacecraft took off from a base in the far western city of Jiuquan. Minutes later, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that the launch was successful, citing the head of China's space program, Chang Wanquan.

China is planning to send a manned mission into orbit as early as next year, and to build a complete space station by 2020.

The country launched its own space station program after being rebuffed in its attempts to join the 16-nation International Space Station, largely on objections from the United States.

Michael Raska, a defense expert from the National University of Singapore, believes that China is pulling out all the stops for long-term presence in space.

“The ultimate goal for the Chinese human space flight program is to establish a long-term human presence in space by 2020,” he told RT. “The Shenzhou-8 will be another important step to achieve this goal.”

But although it’s come a long way with space technologies, China still has a big journey ahead, Raska pointed out.

“Basically, Chinese space technologies do not represent a major technological break-through, if you compare [them] with Russian or American space technologies,” he explained. “For example, the Tiangong-1 space module could be compared to the early Russian space modules of the Soyuz program of the 1970s, and the space station that the Chinese currently envision by 2020 could be compared to what the Mir was in the mid-1980s.”

“That said, however, you can argue that the Chinese are progressively moving toward technological capabilities that are near or comparable to both American and Russian space programs,” Michael Raska concluded.