China heavy rocket launch a success: Roadmap to Moon & beyond continues

China has successfully launched its Long March 5 rocket, a homegrown design that could eventually be tasked with taking the country's astronauts to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. While the Long March 5 has only a few a small number of flights to its name, that hasn't stopped the Chinese space agency from developing an ambitious roadmap for its activities beyond Earth.

The Long March 5 – also known as LM-5, ZM-5, and Changzheng 5 – was designed for 55,000 pound payloads, making it roughly akin to the Delta IV Heavy rocket used in the US. The four booster design uses non-hypergolic liquid rocket propellants, for a total of 2,200,000 pounds of thrust.

Production began in 2007, but delays meant the first actual flight of the rocket wasn't until 2016. That saw the ZM-5 successfully deliver its payload satellite into orbit. A second flight in mid-2017, however, was declared a failure, after an anomaly in one of the first stage engines.

That hasn't slowed China's roadmap for space, mind. The country aims to carry out an unmanned mission to the Moon in 2020, with the goal of collecting samples from the lunar surface and then returning them successfully to Earth. A manned mission to the Moon is scheduled for sometime in the 2030s.

Between then, China plans a space station of its own. The Chinese large modular space station is expected to be roughly a fifth of the mass of the International Space Station (ISS), and occupy Low Earth orbit. Modular in design, it will be built in pieces, primarily a central service module named Tianhe, flanked on either side by two laboratories, Wentian and Mengtian. Three docking ports and an EVA hatch will feature on Tianhe.

China hopes to begin deploying the space station in 2022, with three crew members eventually living there. As with the ISS, there'll be robot cargo ships used for resupply missions.

Before that, though, China needs to get the Long March 5 rocket right. Today's launch blasted off at 8:45pm Beijing time, carrying the Shijian-20 satellite, from Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China's Hainan Province. The satellite achieved orbit roughly 36 minutes later.

Next on the schedule is a fourth launch in July 2020, when China hopes to launch the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover. That will be the rocket's first time deploying something to a TMI, or trans-Mars injection orbit. Later in the year, China hopes to test flight a new design of crewed spacecraft.