BEIJING – China launched an experimental module Thursday, marking a significant step in the country’s plan to build a space station.

The Tiangong-1 module, or “Heavenly Palace-1,” was launched into space by the carrier rocket from a remote base in China’s northwest Gansu province ahead of the country’s National Day celebration Saturday.

The unmanned module, which will be operated remotely from a center in Beijing, will serve as a space laboratory and a docking target for other spacecraft. It will remain in space two years.

The module is expected to rendezvous and dock with Shenzhou 8, another unmanned craft that is due to launch in early November. If the mission is successful, the module will dock with two more spacecraft, Shenzhou 9 and 10. Manned missions may begin in 2012.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said China’s spaceflight technology is roughly as sophisticated as that of NASA’s human spaceflight program in the mid-1960s.