Image:
Ng Han Guan  /  AP
China's Long March 2F rocket launches from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Saturday, sending the country's first woman astronaut and two male crewmates into space aboard their Shenzhou 9 capsule.
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updated 6/17/2012 11:12:27 AM ET 2012-06-17T15:12:27

The launch of China's fourth human spaceflight this weekend kicked off a major docking test flight, and there's a chance you can see the two spaceships involved in the orbital rendezvous in tonight's night sky.

China's Shenzhou 9 space capsule launched into orbit Saturday (June 16) with a crew of three astronauts aboard, including China's first female spaceflyer Liu Yang. The crew's mission is to rendezvous with China's existing space laboratory module Tiangong 1, which has been circling Earth since its own launch last September.

The two spacecraft are expected to dock for the first time on Monday (June 18), which means that if you live in a part of the world that is along the Shenzhou 9 mission's flight path, tonight is your last chance (weather permitting) to see the space capsule and Tiangong 1 orbiting lab flying separately before they link up.

Here's how to find out if the Shenzhou 9 capsule and Tiangong 1 will be visible from your location:

First, some tips: Keep in mind that the key to spacecraft viewing from Earth are dark skies (away from bright city lights), clear weather and good planning to know when and where to look to see the vehicles. Satellites and manned spacecraft often appear as bright pinpoints of lights that move quickly across the night sky.

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The International Space Station, for example, is the largest human-built structure in space and can appear so bright in the sky that its brilliance rivals that of the planet Venus at times. Since the Tiangong 1 lab and Shenzhou 9 capsule are smaller than the space station, they will likely not appear as bright.

The following three websites are good starting points to determining if the vehicles involved in the Shenzhou 9 mission may be visible from your region.

Each site will ask for a zip code or city, and then respond with a list of suggested spotting times. The predictions are computed a few days ahead of time are usually accurate within a few minutes. But they have been known to change, so be sure to check frequently for updates.

Another good resource is the website Real Time Satellite Tracking, which shows which part of the Earth a wide variety of spacecraft happen to be flying over at any given moment during the day or night.  

China's 13-day Shenzhou 9 mission will dock twice at the Tiangong 1 space lab, first in an automatic mode and then again in a manual mode, to demonstrate spaceflight rendezvous technology. Chinese space officials have said the test flight is vital to the country's plans to begin building a full-fledged space station in 2020.

Editor's note: If you snap amazing photos of China's Shenzhou 9 capsule or Tiangong 1 module in orbit that you'd like to be considered for use in a story or gallery, please send pictures and comments to SPACE.com managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

You can follow SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik. Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebookand Google+.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Video: China sends its first woman to space

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
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  12. Frosty halo

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    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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