The Long March-5B rocket left the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province, successfully sending an unmanned spacecraft prototype and a cargo return capsule into orbit.
The new rocket model is a variant of the Long March-5 and can carry larger payloads – up to 22 tons in low Earth orbit.
It was designed to bring space station modules into orbit, said Wang Jue, chief director of the missile development team at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).
It measures approximately 53.7 meters in length, reports Xinhua and weighs about 849 tons on takeoff.
Almost 10 years of development have passed and it boasts the largest fairing – the nose protection cone that contains the payload – of any Chinese carrier rocket.
The single-core stage makes a structure simple and will ensure greater reliability compared to multi-stage rockets, according to Xinhua.
One of the main challenges for designers was to make sure that the rocket could drop its payload directly into orbit, which requires extreme precision.
As a result, the Long March-5B is equipped with guidance, navigation and control technology that allows it to continuously adapt its trajectory, chief designer Li Dong told Xinhua.
The designers will use what they learned from the Long March-5B to develop a heavy launch vehicle, he added.
Before the end of the year, Long March-5 is expected to launch China’s first Mars probe and the Chang’e-5 lunar probe to collect moon samples and return to Earth, according to Xinhua.
China launched its first manned space flight in 2003 – over 40 years after NASA.
But as the nation has become richer and more powerful in recent decades, its space program has accelerated.
Backed by billions of dollars in government investment, Beijing launched space and satellite laboratories into orbit and even became the first country to send an unmanned rover to the opposite side of the moon.
Now, China plans to launch a permanent space station by 2022, and there has even been talk of becoming just the second nation to send a person to the moon’s surface, probably in the 1930s.
CNN’s Ben Westcott, Matt Rivers and Lily Lee contributed to this report.
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