China will early on Tuesday launch an unmanned spacecraft for a docking exercise with the Tiangong-1 space laboratory module, which was put into orbit last month, marking a first for the country's rapidly growing space programme and a key step ahead of the planned launch of a permanent space station by 2020.

Officials said the launch of the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, scheduled to take place at 5.58 am on Tuesday from the Jiuquan satellite launch centre in northwest China, will be followed by at least one manned space mission next year.

China will launch two spacecraft in 2012 to dock with the Tiangong-1, or “heavenly palace” laboratory module, which was sent into orbit on September 29.

The module's launch was hailed by Chinese analysts as a landmark achievement for the nation’s space programme, with China becoming only the third nation, after the United States and Russia, to accomplish this feat.

Both those nations launched their space stations more than three decades ago, underscoring how far behind China's space programme was, despite recent rapid advancements.

The Shenzhou-8 launch will lay the ground for the first manned mission to Tiangong-1 which will take place next year. Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space programme, told reporters on Monday that mastering the technologies of “rendezvous and docking” would equip the programme with the basic technology required for building a space station.

"It will make it possible for China to carry out space exploration of larger scale,” he said.

Tuesday’s mission, Chinese officials said, will mark another first for China’s space programme – a never-before-seen level of close cooperation with another country in outer space. Scientists from China and Germany will together conduct 17 experiments on the spacecraft.

The mission, according to analysts, reflected China’s emergence as an increasingly important global space player. China has now offered its Long March-2F rocket, which will carry the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft on Tuesday, to launch more than 20 satellites for a number of countries.

China has also offered both financial assistance and technical expertise to developing nations to launch their satellites, spreading its presence by offering its technology at a price far less than that offered by Western countries. In recent months, China’s Great Wall Industry Corporation (GWIC) has signed deals and launched communication satellites for countries ranging from Pakistan and Bolivia to Nigeria.

The launches of Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou-8 are geared towards China’s plan to put up a space station by 2020 – the year the international space station is expected to be brought down, and at a time when many Western countries, including the United States, are cutting back on investing in their space programmes.

This symbolism has not been lost in China: a recent commentary in the State-run Xinhua news agency hailed the Tiangong-1 launch as “the latest showcase of the nation’s growing prowess in space,” and one that came “while budget restraints and economic tailspin have held back the once dominant U.S. space missions.”