China on Thursday successfully launched a rocket nearly as powerful as the largest booster in the U.S. fleet. Decades in the making, the debut flight of China's heavy-lift Long March-5 rocket marks a key step in the country's goal to build its own multi-module space station in orbit around Earth.
"The Long March-5 is needed to lift the station modules," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.
China expects to have its three-module space station finished by 2022, Zhonggui Wang, deputy designer of the China Manned Space Program, said during a briefing at the International Astronautical Congress in September. China also plans to expand its exploration of the moon, with launch of another Long March-5 next year on a lunar sample return mission. China already has flown two orbiters and a rover to the moon. It plans to fly a rover to Mars as well.
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"They are building infrastructure and building blocks for a long-term human presence in space," Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program, told Seeker.
China's state-run media reported that the Long March-5 blasted off from the Wenchang Space Launch center in south China's Hainan province at 8:43 p.m. Beijing time (8:43 a.m. EDT).
The rocket, which stands 187 feet tall and is fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, is more than twice as powerful as any previous Chinese booster. It is capable of carrying payloads weighting as much as 27 tons into low-altitude orbits around Earth.
That makes the Long March-5 twice as powerful as any previous Chinese booster and nearly the matching the lift capacity of the most powerful rocket in the U.S. fleet, the Delta 4 Heavy, made by United Launch Alliance.
China's new rocket is more powerful than Europe's Ariane 5 and Russia's Proton.
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U.S. satellites and satellites with U.S. components are prohibited from flying on Chinese rockets due to concerns about missile technology ending up in enemy hands. The regulation are known as ITAR, or International Traffic in Arms Reduction.
NASA and private companies, including Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, are working on even bigger rockets that will be needed for human exploration and development of the moon and Mars, and for sending robotic probes on fast tracks to planets and moons farther away in the solar system.
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