Sat. Oct 1st, 2022
A Long March 5B rocket takes off from the Wenchang launch site in China's southern Hainan Island on May 5, 2020.
enlarge A Long March 5B rocket takes off from the Wenchang launch site in China’s southern Hainan Island on May 5, 2020.

STR/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, China’s Long March 5B rocket was successfully launched from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, which extends into the South China Sea. The rocket successfully launched an unmanned pilot version of its next-generation spacecraft — with a mass of nearly 22 tons — into Earth orbit.

From there, the spacecraft will attempt to increase its orbit to about 8,000 km and successfully return to Earth at high speed.

This was only the fourth launch of the large Long March 5 rocket and the first of the 5B variant, which is nearly as powerful as United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy booster. After the second flight of this Chinese booster failed in July 2017, the rocket has successfully launched twice in the past six months, indicating that it is back on track.

China is counting on the Long March 5B rocket to lift a space station’s heavy modules to be mounted in low Earth orbit. At a post-flight press conference on Tuesday, a Chinese official confirmed the country’s plan to complete construction of this orbital outpost by 2022. This requires a dozen launches. Tuesday’s successful launch also paves the way for the launch of an ambitious mission to send a lander to Mars in July.

China catches up

Through its space program, China has attempted to use human spaceflight as a soft force and position itself as an equal to the United States in space. Several participants in Tuesday’s press conference also noted that the successful launch marked a “victory” over the COVID-19 pandemic.

If China’s space program goes as planned, China will match some of NASA’s greatest achievements in the coming years: building a modular space station in low Earth orbit, soft landing for a science mission on Mars and developing a deep space capsule. with similar size and capabilities to the Orion spacecraft. China has also penetrated traditional American alliances, with a handful of European astronauts training to fly to the Chinese space station.

Tuesday’s test was analogous to the Exploration Flight Test-1 that NASA conducted in 2014, when its Orion spacecraft was launched on the Delta IV Heavy rocket. Orion flew to a peak altitude of 5,800 km to test high-speed reentry — presumably as a harbinger of future reentry from lunar orbit. At the time, NASA announced the test as the beginning of a robust exploration of deep space. Orion’s next flight would take place in 2017.

In the nearly six years since, however, the agency’s reconnaissance plans stalled, with Orion grounded. NASA has spent more than $2 billion a year developing the oft-delayed Space Launch System rocket, which is unlikely to make its maiden flight before the end of 2021 or 2022 as Boeing struggles to complete the rocket’s core phase and To test. Meanwhile, China appears to be making rapid progress to overtake the United States in manned spaceflight.

By akfire1

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