China launches powerful new rocket as it eyes advanced space program

China is celebrating the successful trial launch of a newly designed spacecraft, described a key part of its program to build an orbiting space station, Chinese state media says.

Key points:

  • China has been developing its own space program after being barred from collaborating with the US program
  • The planned Chinese space station will rival the International Space Station
  • China also plans to conduct exploration missions on Mars

The unmanned spacecraft and its return capsule, which can carry six astronauts at a time, rather than just three, were flung into space aboard a Long March 5B rocket.

It was the debut flight of the Long March 5B, which was specially designed to propel modules of China’s future space station into orbit.

China plans to build a large space facility to orbit the Earth, with multiple modules to rival the scale of the International Space Station.

The US has banned most space cooperation with China out of national security concerns, keeping China from participating in the International Space Station and prompting it to gradually develop its own equipment.

China’s burgeoning space program achieved a milestone last year by landing a spacecraft on the largely unexplored far side of the moon and has further plans to launch a lander and rover on Mars.

China trial rocket launch

China trial rocket launch

China made headlines last year by landing a spacecraft on the largely unexplored far side of the moon.(Tu Haichao/Xinhua via AP)

The program has developed rapidly, especially since its first crewed mission in 2003, and has sought cooperation with space agencies in Europe and elsewhere.

New space race

In April US space agency NASA and SpaceX announced the date of May 27 for resuming astronaut launches from the United States.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space company, SpaceX, will send two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station from the US state of Florida – marking the company’s first mission carrying humans.

“On May 27, NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil!” Mr Bridenstine tweeted.

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, departing from the same Kennedy Space Centre launch pad used by shuttle Atlantis in July 2011, as well as the Apollo moonshots a half-century ago.

As with most high-profile missions, the new date could slip.

Astronauts haven’t launched into orbit from the US since NASA’s last space shuttle flight in 2011 and the agency has relied on Russia’s space program to ferry astronauts to the space station.

Only three countries have launched people into orbit since 1961: Russia, the US and China, in that order. SpaceX would be the first private company to do so.