China's Long March 5B carrier rocket made its debut flight from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province on Tuesday evening, with the China Manned Space Agency saying it marked a new chapter in the country's manned space program.
The 18-story-tall rocket blasted off at 6 pm from a launchpad in the coastal center and thundered into the bright blue sky, video clips showed.
About eight minutes later, it placed the prototypes of China's new-generation manned spacecraft and an experimental cargo retrieval craft into low-Earth orbit, along with more than 10 other experimental craft, the agency said in a statement.
It said the flight had verified the overall design and technologies of the new rocket and marked the beginning of the third stage in China's manned space program, which aims to put a manned space station above the Earth.
The rocket is central to the space station program because it is the only Chinese launch vehicle capable of carrying large space station parts into orbit.
With its payload weighing about 22 metric tons, Tuesday's mission made the Long March 5B the most powerful Chinese rocket when it comes to carrying capacity to a low-Earth orbit. It also realized a 62-year-old aspiration by the late Mao Zedong, who told a Communist Party of China Central Committee meeting in May 1958 that "we shall launch a 20,000-kilogram spacecraft" while describing the nation's desire to embark on space programs.
The Long March 5B is the first variant of the Long March 5, which conducted its third mission at the Wenchang center in December. It has one core stage and four boosters.
The rocket is 53.7 meters long, with a core-stage diameter of 5 meters. It is propelled by liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen and kerosene and has a liftoff weight of about 849 tons.
The most obvious differences in the appearance of the Long March 5 and Long March 5B are that the new model is about 4 meters shorter and has a much larger fairing - the largest of any Chinese carrier rocket - according to Li Dong, chief designer of the Long March 5 family at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology in Beijing.
The two types also have different functions - Long March 5 is responsible for launching large satellites to high orbits or lifting deep-space probes, while the new model is tasked with sending large spacecraft to low-Earth orbit, he said on Tuesday.
The first Long March 5B was transported to the launch center in February by two rocket transportation ships - Yuanwang 21 and Yuanwang 22 - from the northern coastal municipality of Tianjin, home to the rocket's manufacturing complexes, and had been undergoing prelaunch preparations since then.
Source: Long March 5B launch marks new stage in China's manned space program
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