A Chinese spacecraft carrying three astronauts has successfully docked with the country's space station, its space agency said, around seven hours after blasting off.

The Shenzhou-12 craft "successfully docked with the forward port of the core module" of the Tiangong station, according to a statement from the China Manned Space Agency, on the country's longest crewed space mission to date.

The trio - the first astronauts to be sent to the station - launched on a Long March-2F rocket in a much-anticipated blast-off broadcast live on state television.

Lift-off happened at 9.22am (2.22am Irish time) from the Jiuquan launch centre in northwest China's Gobi desert, with the rocket rising in clouds of smoke against a blue sky.

After about 10 minutes it reached orbit and the space craft separated from the rocket, to loud applause in the control room among rows of blue-suited engineers.

State broadcaster CCTV showed a live feed from inside the spacecraft, with the three astronauts lifting their helmet visors and one smiling and waving at the camera.

Another floated a pen just off his lap in zero-gravity as he browsed the flight manual.

Cameras outside the craft broadcast live images of the Earth below.

"According to reports from the Beijing aerospace control centre, the Long March-2F rocket has sent the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft to the preset orbit," said Zhang Zhifen, director of the Jiuquan satellite launch centre.

"The solar panels unfolded successfully and now we declare the Shenzhou-12 launch a complete success."

At a ceremony before blastoff, the three astronauts, already wearing their space suits, greeted a crowd of supporters and space workers, who sang the patriotic song "Without the Chinese Communist Party, there would be no new China".

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The mission's commander is Nie Haisheng, a decorated air force pilot in the People's Liberation Army who has already participated in two space missions.

The two other members are also members of the military.

(L-R) Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming pictured before the launch

The station was placed in orbit on 29 April and the astronauts will spend three months there.

The module has separate living spaces for each of them, a "space treadmill" and bike for exercise, and a communication centre for emails and video calls with ground control.

It is China's first crewed mission in nearly five years.

Huang Weifen of the China Manned Space Program said the astronauts will perform two spacewalks during the mission, both lasting around six or seven hours.

She also said the trio will wear newly-developed spacewalk spacesuits.

The launch represents a matter of huge prestige in China, as Beijing prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party on 1 July.

To prepare for the mission, the crew has undergone more than 6,000 hours of training, including hundreds of underwater somersaults in full space gear.

The Chinese space agency is planing a total of 11 launches through to the end of next year, including three more manned missions which will deliver two lab modules to expand the 70-tonne station, and supplies and crew members.

China's space ambitions have been fuelled in part by a US ban on its astronauts on the International Space Station, a collaboration between the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.

It is due for retirement after 2024, even though NASA said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028.

Tiangong will be much smaller than the ISS, and is expected to have a lifespan of at least 10 years.

China has said it would be open to international collaboration on its space station although it has yet to give specific details.

Zhou Jianping, chief designer at the space programme, said "foreign astronauts are certainly going to enter the Chinese space station one day."

"There are a number of countries that have expressed a desire to do that and we will be open to that in future," he said.

Beijing said in March it was also planning to build a separate lunar space station with Russia, and this week the two countries issued a "roadmap" for potential collaboration opportunities.