China launched a large new heavy-lift rocket yesterday, a major step in its endeavors to send missions to the Moon and Mars as well as build a fully-fledged space station in Earth orbit.
The Long March 5 rocket blasted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island at 8.43pm local time (8.43am EDT, 12.43pm GMT) yesterday. At 57 meters (187 feet) tall, and with a lifting capability of 25 metric tonnes (27.6 US tons) to Earth orbit, it is one of the largest rockets in operation today.
What the rocket's payload was isn’t completely clear, with most reports saying it carried an experimental spacecraft called Shijian 17 into orbit, which will test out ion propulsion technologies.
The main purpose of the launch, though, was simply to test that the rocket works. It is about 2.5 times as powerful as China’s existing Long March fleet of vehicles, and can take 14 metric tonnes (15.4 US tons) to a more distant geostationary orbit.
"The Long March 5's payload capacity is about 2.5 times bigger than other major Chinese rockets," said Li Dong, chief designer of the Long March 5 at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology in Beijing, reported China Daily. "The bigger size is not just a simple enlargement, actually it represents tremendous breakthroughs in terms of design, testing and manufacturing capabilities."
This will be important for China’s upcoming goals. At the moment, two Chinese astronauts (known as Taikonauts) are halfway through a month-long stay on the small experimental space station Tiangong-2. By 2022, however, China hopes to launch the first part of a much larger space station, Tiangong-3, which will eventually be about one-seventh the size of the ISS.
With its high lifting capability, the Long March 5 will also be an essential part of China’s forays beyond Earth orbit. Next year, the agency is hoping to launch its Chang’e 5 lunar orbiter, lander, and rover, which will be carried to the Moon by this new rocket. And, in 2020, China hopes to launch its first Mars probe – although details are few and far between at the moment.
For now, the Long March 5 is second only to the US Delta IV Heavy rocket, which can lift 28.8 metric tonnes (31.7 US tons) to Earth orbit. Both will be dwarfed by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, expected to launch next year with a lifting capability of 54.5 metric tonnes (60 US tons).
It’s an important milestone for China, though, as it continues to blaze its own path in space travel alongside the more experienced players.