China on Tuesday successfully launched its largest carrier rocket, which was carrying a new-generation spacecraft, state broadcaster CCTV said. The Long March-5B carrier rocket took off at 6pm local time (3:30pm IST) at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the southern island province of Hainan. It was the first mission carried out by the Long March-5B, CCTV reported, citing the China Manned Space Engineering Office.

About 488 seconds later, the experimental manned spacecraft with no crew, together with the test version of the cargo return capsule, separated with the rocket and entered the planned orbit. The successful flight inaugurates the “third step” of China”s manned space program, which is to construct a space station, China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said.

The Long March-5B – with a length of about 53.7 metres and takeoff mass of about 849 tonnes – was also carrying an inflatable cargo return module. “After the launch of the Long March-5, China will launch a series of 20-ton rockets, including the Long March-5, 6 and 7,” Wang Xiaojun, commander-in-chief of the Long March-7, told state-run news agency Xinhua. The rocket will help carry the core module and experiment modules to China’s space station.

China said in March it was aiming to launch an experimental spacecraft without a crew as part of a broader spaceflight programme to shuttle astronauts to its future space station and for future manned space exploration. The launch was earlier scheduled for mid-to late April.

China aims to complete a multi-module, inhabited space station around 2022. It became the third country to put a man in space with its own rocket in 2003 after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

China has since been racing to catch up with Russia and the United States to become a major space power by 2030.

Beijing has made huge strides in its effort catch up to the US space programme, sending astronauts into space, satellites into orbit and a rover on the far side of the Moon.

A successful maiden flight of the 54-metre Long March 5B would reassure China, following failures of the 7A model in March and 3B model in April.

Beijing has launched several space vehicles since 1999, the Shenzhou, which were modelled after Russia’s Soyuz.

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