China said Tuesday it will launch a new rocket at 6pm (1000 GMT), in a test of its ambitions to operate a permanent space station and send astronauts to the Moon.
A new large carrier rocket – Long March 5B – is expected to lift off from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island of Hainan, the China Manned Space Agency said in a statement.
The rocket is expected to carry a next-generation spacecraft that is supposed to, one day, transport astronauts to a space station that China plans to complete by 2022 – and eventually to the Moon.
The prototype vessel, designed for low-Earth orbit and deep space exploration, has enough room for six astronauts, compared to three seats in the previous model.
“The mission will test the key technologies of the new manned spaceship such as the control of its re-entry into the atmosphere, heat shielding and recovery technology,” Yang Qing, a designer of the spaceship with the China Academy of Space Technology, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency in March.
The United States is so far the only country to have been able to send humans to the Moon.
But Beijing has made huge strides in its effort to catch up to the US space programme, sending astronauts into space, satellites into orbit and a rover to the far side of the Moon.
A successful maiden flight of the 54-metre Long March 5B would reassure China, following failures of the 7A model in March and 3B model in April.
Beijing has launched several spacecraft since 1999, the Shenzhou, which were modelled after Russia’s Soyuz.