China, second manned space flight

Jiuquan (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The Shenzhou 6 capsule lifted off at 9am (local time) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the country's desert northwest of Gansu. The Long March 2F rocket carries out Heart's orbit the capsule. Inside of Shenzhou VI are 2 astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng.

In a sign of official confidence in the mission, the communist government broke with the military-run space programme's usual secrecy and showed the launch live on state television.

Minutes after liftoff, mission control announced that the first stage booster had successfully separated from the rocket and that the flight was proceeding as planned. "Feeling pretty good," Fei said in the first broadcast comment from the astronauts.

The mission is expected to be longer and riskier than the 2003 flight, which carried Yang Liwei – first Chinese on space and now national hero – in orbit for just 21-1/2 hours. Unconfirmed news reports say the flight could last up to five days, and that the capsule was expected to orbit the Earth 80 times.

The manned space programme is a key prestige project for China's ruling Communist Party, which hopes that patriotic pride at its triumphs will help to shore up the party's public standing amid frustration at official corruption and social problems.