hina will launch three astronauts this month to dock with an orbiting experimental module, and the crew might include its first female space traveler, a government news agency said yesterday.

A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft was moved to a launchpad in China's desert northwest Saturday for the mid-June flight, the Xinhua News Agency said, citing a space program spokesman.

The three-member crew will dock with and live in the Tiangong 1 orbital module launched last year, Xinhua said. The government has not said how long the mission will last.

Xinhua cited Niu Hongguang, deputy commander in chief of the manned space program, as saying the crew "might include female astronauts."

China's space program has made steady progress since a 2003 launch that made it only the third nation to put a man in space on its own. Two more manned missions have followed, one including a spacewalk.

China completed its first space rendezvous in November when the unmanned Shenzhou 8 docked with the Tiangong 1 by remote control. Tiangong 1 was launched on Sept. 29.

Over the next few days, scientists will test the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, the Long March 2F rocket and ground systems, Xinhua said, citing the spokesman.

During the flight, one crew member will remain aboard the Shenzhou 9 "as a precautionary measure" while the others enter Tiangong 1, Xinhua said.-- AP

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