Enlarge /. A Long March 5B rocket will launch from Wenchang launch site on China's southern Hainan Island on May 5, 2020.
STR / AFP via Getty Images
On Tuesday, China's Long March 5B rocket launched successfully from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, which extends into the South China Sea. The rocket successfully launched an unscrewed trial version of its next-generation spacecraft – weighing almost 22 tons – into orbit.
From there, the spacecraft will attempt to raise its orbit to approximately 8,000 km and successfully return to Earth at high speed. This will provide data for China's space program as it is considering a space exploration plan.
This was only the fourth launch of the large Long March 5B rocket, which is almost as powerful as the United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy Booster. After this Chinese booster's second flight failed in July 2017, the rocket has been successfully launched twice in the past six months, indicating that it is back on track.
China is relying on the Long March 5B rocket to lift the heavy modules of a space station that are to be assembled in a near-Earth orbit. During a post-flight press conference on Tuesday, a Chinese official confirmed the country's plan to complete construction of this orbital outpost in 2022. A dozen starts are required. The successful start on Tuesday also paves the way for the launch of an ambitious mission to send a lander to Mars in July.
China is catching up
With its space program, China tried to use human space travel as a soft power and to equate itself to the United States in space. Several participants in Tuesday's press conference also found that the successful launch meant a "victory" over the COVID-19 pandemic.
If China's space program goes as planned over the next few years, China will achieve some of NASA's greatest achievements: building a modular space station in orbit near Earth, gently landing a scientific mission on Mars, and developing a similarly sized and deep capsule Skills like the Orion spaceship. China has also made progress in traditional U.S. alliances, with a handful of European astronauts training to fly to the Chinese space station.
Tuesday's test was analogous to Exploration Flight Test-1, which NASA carried out in 2014 when its Orion spacecraft launched the Delta IV Heavy rocket. Orion flew to an altitude of 5,800 km to test re-entry at high speed – presumably as a precursor to future moon orbit returnees. At that time, NASA announced the test as the beginning of a robust exploration of space. Orion's next flight was scheduled for 2017.
However, in the almost six years since then, the agency's exploration plans have stalled because Orion is grounded. NASA has spent more than $ 2 billion a year developing the often-delayed missile space launch system, which is not expected to make its first flight until late 2021 or 2022 because of Boeing's difficulty in completing and launching the core stage of the missile testing. In the meantime, China appears to be making rapid progress to overtake the United States in human space travel.