China has completed a pair of firsts with an early morning launch from Wenchang. The launch was the maiden flight of the Long March 5B and the country’s next-generation crew capsule.
The 10 engines that power the 18-story Long March 5B ignited at 10:00 UTC from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. Shortly after the launch, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) confirmed that the crew capsule had been successfully deployed into its planned orbit.
The Long March 5B is the newest variant of the country’s most powerful rocket. This variant of the rocket is unique in that it does not have a second stage. During a launch, the four boosters fall away approximately three minutes into the flight. The two YF-77 engines powering the core stage continue to fire for an additional five minutes before final separation.
The successful launch of this morning’s launch bodes well for China’s future space plans. Over the next four years, the country plans to utilize Long March 5 and 5B rockets to launch a Mars mission, two missions to the Moon, two science missions, and four space station modules, the first of which is set to be launched in the first quarter of 2021.
In addition to being the maiden launch of the Long March 5B, it is also the country’s first demonstration mission of its currently unnamed next-generation crew capsule. According to a CASC press release, the new capsule will be used for near-Earth space station missions, deep space exploration, and “other mission requirements.”
The spacecraft is reportedly 9 meters high (although it is unclear if this includes the service module), 4.5 meters wide, and weighs more than 20 tons. According to CASC, during near-Earth missions, the spacecraft will be capable of transporting between six and seven taikonauts at a time. This crew capacity will likely be significantly smaller for “deep space” applications.