China launches next-generation space capsule on Long March 5B rocket test flight

China space agency completed a vital test launch today (May 5) when the first launch of its heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket went off without a hitch.

The Long March 5B rocket is a cornerstone of China’s space exploration plans. The same vehicle will carry the country’s Mars mission, dubbed Tianwen, that is scheduled to launch this summer. And the heavy-lift rocket is also necessary for launching modules of the new space station China plans to build. And then, there’s the crew capsule.

Today’s flight is an uncrewed test mission for that vehicle, with China particularly eager for data on the performance of its heat shield and parachutes, among other aspects of the unnamed capsule, according to SpaceNews. The capsule should be able to carry six or seven astronauts at a time, according to a statement from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, a state-owned contractor for the space agency. 

Related: How China’s space station will work (infographic)

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China’s first Long March 5B rocket launches the country’s next-generation space capsule into orbit on an uncrewed test flight from Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island in southern China on May 5, 2020. (Image credit: China Aerospace and Science and Technology Corporation)

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China’s first Long March 5B rocket launches the country’s next-generation space capsule into orbit on an uncrewed test flight from Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island in southern China on May 5, 2020. (Image credit: CCTV)

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China’s first Long March 5B rocket launches the country’s next-generation space capsule into orbit on an uncrewed test flight from Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island in southern China on May 5, 2020. (Image credit: China Aerospace and Science and Technology Corporation)

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China’s first Long March 5B rocket rolls out to the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern China island of Hainan for a May 5, 2020 launch. (Image credit: China Aerospace and Science and Technology Corporation)

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China’s first Long March 5B rocket rolls out to the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern China island of Hainan for a May 5, 2020 launch. (Image credit: China Aerospace and Science and Technology Corporation)

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China’s first Long March 5B rocket is seen in its vehicle assembly building at the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island in southern China. (Image credit: China Aerospace and Science and Technology Corporation)

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China’s next-generation space capsule for astronauts is prepared for its uncrewed test flight on a Long March 5B rocket in these stills from a CCTV state news video. The capsule launched May 5, 2020. (Image credit: CCTV)

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China’s next-generation space capsule for astronauts is prepared for its uncrewed test flight on a Long March 5B rocket in these stills from a CCTV state news video. The capsule launched May 5, 2020. (Image credit: CCTV)

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China’s next-generation space capsule for astronauts is prepared for its uncrewed test flight on a Long March 5B rocket in these stills from a CCTV state news video. The capsule launched May 5, 2020. (Image credit: CCTV)

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China’s next-generation space capsule for astronauts is prepared for its uncrewed test flight on a Long March 5B rocket in these stills from a CCTV state news video. The capsule launched May 5, 2020. (Image credit: CCTV)

The Long March 5B is capable of lifting 25 tons of payload to low Earth orbit, a vital requirement for China’s dreams of building a new space station. The rocket is also equipped with a fairing of larger diameter than the nation has launched before, a requirement for the modules under consideration.

Lift-off of today’s mission occurred at 6 p.m. local time (6 a.m. EDT, 1000 GMT). About 8 minutes after launch, the rocket and capsule separated. Assuming the rest of the crew capsule’s flight goes smoothly, today’s success will open the door to a slate of 11 launches designed to facilitate space station construction, Zhou Jianping, chief designer for the crewed program, said in a statement.

The three-module space station, called Tianhe, is designed to focus on science, with a range of research possible in orbit, including astronomy, life sciences, materials sciences and combustion, Zhou added.

China has managed two space laboratories before: Tiangong-1, which launched in 2011, and Tiangong-2, which launched in 2016. The nation first launched its own astronauts, dubbed taikonauts, in 2003, but has not launched any crewed missions since 2016. 

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Source: space.com

Tags: 2020, China, Data, Dreams, Facebook, Flight, Image, island, M, Mars, Mission, new, News, or, Rocket, Science, SHIELD, Space, Space Station, Technology, Us, Vehicle, Video

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