China on Saturday launched a rocket carrying three astronauts to the core module of its future space station.

The Shenzhou-13 spacecraft blasted off from the northwestern province of Gansu just after midnight local time.

Around six hours later, the vessel successfully docked at the port of the space station.

China hopes to complete the construction of its own space station to rival that of the International Space Station by the end of next year.

Shenzhou-13 is the country’s second of four crewed missions needed for the project.

Ahead of the launch, the three astronauts – two men and one woman – attended a sending-off ceremony.

Wang Yaping is the first female astronaut to visit the Chinese station after becoming China’s second woman in space in 2013.

The crew will now spend the next six months living and working on the station’s largest module.

It will be the longest duration in orbit for Chinese astronauts and during that time they will conduct tests of key technologies and robotics needed to assemble the space station.

They will also verify onboard life support systems and conduct a host of scientific experiments.

China has spent the last decade developing its own space technologies, as it is barred by U.S. law from working with NASA.

With the International Space Station retiring in a few years, China’s space station is expected to become the only one in Earth’s orbit.