China's space programme on Thursday hailed its first ever docking exercise in outer space, conducted by an unmanned spacecraft, launched this week, with a space laboratory module — a step seen as a crucial landmark along China's road to launch its own space station in the next decade.

Early on Thursday, the unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou-8 docked with the Tiangong-1 laboratory module which was launched on September 29, a development described by the China space programme as a “major technological breakthrough”.

China is now only the third country to accomplish a docking exercise in space, after the United States and Russia. Both those countries carried out similar exercises more than three decades ago.

While China still continues to lag the two countries in its space technology, Beijing hopes to close the gap by becoming the third country to put into orbit its own space station, by 2020 — the year the International Space Station is brought down.

Thursday's docking exercise between Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou-8, which will fly together for 12 days and conduct another docking exercise, was hailed by Chinese leaders as a vital step towards taking forward the space programme.

“Breakthroughs in and acquisition of space docking technologies are vital to the three-phase development strategy of our manned space programme,” said President Hu Jintao.

With recent rapid advancements in its space programme, China's commercial satellite industry has widened its reach overseas, launching satellites for more than 20 countries. China's investments in expanding its space programme have also stirred concern among some countries, considering the military dimensions of the technology. The official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary on Thursday China “always expresses willingness to open its space vessels and facilities to the international science community”.

“There are more resources in space for humans to explore, which is an impetus for China to boost its outer space adventure, particularly after the International Space Station (ISS) was announced to retire by 2020,” said the commentary. “If completed in around 2020 as planned, the China-made space station might replace the ISS to harbour internationally collaborative space science experiments.”