China ticked a couple more boxes on its space-program checklist this weekend, as it gears up to send a second space station into orbit this September.
On Sunday, China successfully recovered an experimental probe, which it launched on a new rocket called the Long March 7, reports state-run Xinhua News Agency. This marked the first use of the expansive Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, a new facility on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, and the first launch of the Long March 7 rocket, which has been lauded for its use of more efficient propellants. The experimental probe was being tested as a half-scale model of a crew capsule that the country hopes will transport astronauts into and out of orbit.
Capable of carrying some 13.5 metric tons (30,000 pounds), the Long March 7 is the most powerful rocket China has ever built, so its successful launch is a milestone for a country that put its first astronauts into space just 13 years ago. The rocket was also fueled by a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen, which proved far more environmentally friendly than the hypergolic fuels of China’s yesteryear.
The new launch site has also contributed to lessening fuel costs. The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center — China’s fourth such facility — is located farther south than any of the nation’s other launch pads. Since rockets need less propellant when launched near the equator, the Wechang Center will help save China about $6 million in fuel with each launch.
These slight but significant achievements are keeping China on track for two more ambitious missions in the near future. In September, China plans to begin launching components of its second space station, the Tiangong 2, into orbit. It also hopes to launch an unmanned mission to Mars by 2020, right on the heels of SpaceX’s Red Dragon spacecraft.