China on Tuesday successfully launched a new rocket and prototype spacecraft, state media said, in a major test of the country’s ambitions to operate a permanent space station and send astronauts to the Moon.
The Long March 5B rocket took off from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island of Hainan and eight minutes later an unmanned prototype spaceship successfully separated and entered its planned orbit, according to the Xinhua news agency.
A test version of a cargo return capsule also successfully separated from the rocket, Xinhua added.
China hopes that the spaceship will one day transport astronauts to a space station that the country plans to complete by 2022 — and eventually to the Moon.
The prototype vessel, designed for low-earth orbit and deep space exploration, has enough room for six astronauts, compared to three seats in the previous model.
“The mission will test the key technologies of the new manned spaceship such as the control of its re-entry into the atmosphere, heat shielding and recovery technology,” Yang Qing, a designer of the spaceship with the China Academy of Space Technology, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency in March.
The United States is so far the only country to have successfully sent humans to the Moon.
But Beijing has made huge strides in its effort to catch up, sending astronauts into space, satellites into orbit and a rover to the far side of the Moon.
– 849 tonnes –
The successful maiden flight of the 54-metre Long March 5B — which has a takeoff mass of about 849 tonnes — should reassure China, following failures of the 7A model in March and 3B model in April.
“The new spaceship will give China an advantage in the area of human spaceflight over Japan and Europe,” said Chen Lan, an independent analyst at GoTaikonauts.com, which specializes in China’s space program.
The US no longer has its own spaceship since retiring the space shuttle in 2011 and relies on Russia to send astronauts to the International Space Station, AFP reported.
“It depends how ambitious the Chinese space program is at the moment but missions beyond the Moon will be possible,” said Carter Palmer, space systems analyst with US-based Forecast International consultancy.
Beijing has launched several spacecraft since 1999 and the previous vessel, the Shenzhou, was modelled after Russia’s Soyuz
The next big mission for Beijing is to land a probe on Mars, with liftoff expected this year.
“China has caught up with the US in some space areas like earth observation and navigation,” Chen said.
“But there are still large gaps between China and US in deep space exploration and human space flight,” he said, adding the US was the “leading space power today, yesterday and in the near future.”