China on Tuesday successfully launched a new rocket and prototype spacecraft, state media said, in a major test of the country’s ambitions to operate a permanent space station and send astronauts to the Moon.
The Long March 5B rocket took off from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island of Hainan and eight minutes later an unmanned prototype spaceship successfully separated and entered its planned orbit, according to the Xinhua news agency.
A test version of a cargo return capsule also successfully separated from the rocket, Xinhua added.
The spaceship will one-day transport astronauts to a space station that China plans to complete by 2022 — and eventually to the Moon.
It will have the capacity for a crew of six.
The spaceship and capsule are slated to return to a landing site by Friday after completing their test flights, Ji Qiming of the China Manned Space Agency told a press conference.
Leader of the command headquarters for the flight mission Zhang Xueyu said the launch had “strengthened confidence and determination” for the next stages of China’s space programme.
The United States is so far the only country to have successfully sent humans to the Moon.
But Beijing has made huge strides in its effort to catch up, sending astronauts into space, satellites into orbit and a rover to the far side of the Moon.