China has launched its second space station in a sign of the growing sophistication of its military-backed program.

The Tiangong 2 was carried into space Thursday night atop a Long March 7 rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China.

Plans call for the launch next month of the Shenzhou 11 spaceship with two astronauts on board to dock with the station and remain on board for a month. The station, whose name means "Heavenly Palace," is considered a stepping stone to a mission to Mars by the end of the decade.

China's first space station, Tiangong 1, was launched in September 2011 and officially went out of service earlier this year.