China's Shenzhou X spacecraft with three astronauts on board docked Thursday with the Tiangong I space laboratory, where the crew will carry out repair work and perform experiments.

The docking maneuver came at the scheduled time - 1:18 p.m. (0518 GMT) - and was performed automatically, according to China's official Xinhua news agency.

The Shenzhou X, which will remain in orbit for 15 days, is scheduled to carry out two dockings with the Tiangong I, which was launched in September 2011 and initially was expected to cease operating this year and plunge back to Earth, although the Chinese space program has managed to prolong its life.

In the coming years, China is scheduled to launch the Tiangong II and III, the latter in about 2020, a move coinciding with the retirement of the International Space Station, at which time the Asian giant will have the only permanent manned orbital base.

China has launched five crewed missions into space to date, the first 10 years ago, and the current crew consists of Zhang Xiaoguang, Nie Haisheng and Wang Yaping, the country's second female astronaut.

State-run CCTV television on Wednesday broadcast images of the orbiting astronauts celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival, a traditional Chinese ceremony that this week provided the country's citizens with three days of vacation.

Shenzhou X was launched from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center in Gansu province around 5:38 p.m. on Wednesday with President Xi Jinping personally on hand, while other high-level Chinese Communist Party officials monitored the mission from the aerospace control center in Beijing.

Nie is the first astronaut from the Asian country to return to space, having been part of the crew of Shenzhou VI in 2005. EFE