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China rocket launch brings space station plans closer

China's biggest rocket has blasted off from the southern coast, helping to advance its own plans for a space station. The Long March 5 is estimated to be three times as powerful as previous Chinese technology.

The ML5, which is larger than previous versions of the Long March carrier rockets, was launched from a pad in the southern province of Hainan on Thursday evening, the state news agency Xinhua said.

"Its successful launch has propelled China to the forefront of the world in terms of rocket carrying capacity, and marks a milestone in China's transition from a major player in space to a major power in space," Xinhua cited the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee and powerful Central Military Commission as saying in a letter.

New space race

The rocket is capable of carrying 25 tons of payload into low-earth orbit - the equivalent weight of 16 cars - and 14 tons to the more distant geostationary transfer orbit. That is more than twice the carrying capacity of China's earlier Long March rockets.

Thursday evening's launch came a few weeks after China began its longest manned space mission, sending two astronauts to spend a month aboard the Tiangong 2 space laboratory.

Beijing plans to build a permanently manned space station by 2022. The LM 5 rocket will help deliver components and other massive payloads to such a station. It could also be used for lunar and Mars missions.

Chinese astronauts

China has sent two astronauts to its space lab Tiangong 2

The US Defense Department highlighted China's increasing space capabilities, saying Beijing was pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations from using space-based assets during a crisis.

But the ML5 project is years behind schedule after test firings led to several failures, the "South China Morning Post" newspaper reported.

Despite its advancements for military, commercial and scientific purposes, China is still playing catch-up to established space powers the United States and Russia, experts have said.

China's Jade Rabbit moon rover landed on the moon in late 2013 to great national fanfare but soon suffered severe technical difficulties. The EU's most recent space mission, the ExoMars lander Schiaparelli, also fell victim to a serious technical problem and may have exploded on impact.

US companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, are now developing commercial space flight capabilities. Both companies are developing reusable rockets, and SpaceX has put forward the ambitious goal of a human mission to Mars as early as 2024.

mm/sms (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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