China has launched a demonstration mission of its next-generation crew spacecraft, using the Long March 5B rocket. This is the first launch for that new rocket, an iteration of China’s Long March launcher that will also be used to take up the sections and components of the country’s forthcoming national orbital space station.
This launch flew the crew spacecraft without anyone on board, taking off from Wengchang in China, which is the country’s newest spacecraft launch site. The Long March 5B is a ten engine rocket, including four strapped on boosters that increase its lift capabilities, and represents the nation’s most powerful launch vehicle to date. It lacks a second stage, and is specifically designed for bringing big payloads to low Earth orbit – which is exactly what’s needed for assembling the space station China plans to establish there by 2022.
The crew capsule itself will spend a short time in low Earth orbit for its demonstration mission, which is a preparatory step on the way to certifying it for flight. Eventually, the spacecraft will replace the Shenzhou, which is the current vehicle that China uses to bring astronauts to space for rendezvous with orbital stations. It can carry up to six people at once, vs. three on the current model, and can eventually carry astronauts to the Moon.
This is a significant mission for China’s space program, and an interesting comparison point for the ongoing Commercial Crew missions by NASA, which is approaching a major milestone with the first demonstration launch of SpaceX’s Commercial Crew spacecraft with astronauts on board on May 27. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon can carry up to seven passengers, depending on configuration.