A Long March-7 carrier rocket lifts off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, south China's Hainan Province, June 25, 2016. (PHoto: Xinhua/Li Gang)
China launched its Long March-7 carrier rocket successfully late on Saturday, hailed as a prelude for the country's five-year plan (2016-2020) for the space sector.
China is expected to have more than 200 spacecraft in orbit by 2020 and perform about 30 launches per year on average, said Yang Baohua, deputy manager of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC), on Sunday.
China plans to launch the Long March-5 in the second half of the year, according to the Carrier Rocket Technology Research Institute.
The Long March-5 will be the country's largest carrier rocket, designed to carry 25 tonnes into low-Earth orbit (LEO). It is expected to carry lunar probe Chang'e-5, the core module for China's space station and the Mars probe.
The CASTC carries out about 20 space launches annually, and it faces further research and development challenges, Yang said.
Saturday's launch marks a key step toward China's plan to eventually operate a permanent space station in the final step of the country's three-phase manned space program.
The country launched its first manned spaceflight in 2003, and its first space lab, Tiangong-1, blasted off in 2011.
The third and final step will be to assemble and operate a 60-tonne space station around 2022.
To do that, Chinese engineers have planned four space launches in the next ten months. The Long March-7 mission is the first of these missions.
A second mission in late September will put the Tiangong-2 space lab into orbit, and the third will see the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft, which will carry two Taikonauts, dock with Tiangong-2 in October.
In April 2017, China's first cargo ship Tianzhou-1, which literally means "heavenly vessel," will be sent to dock with Tiangong-2 in the final mission.
China's mission to Mars will begin around 2020.
"The probe is expected to orbit the red planet, land and deploy a rover all in one mission, which is quite difficult to achieve," said Xu Dazhe, director of China's National Space Administration, on April 22, ahead of celebrations on April 24 marking the launch of the country's first satellite 46 years ago.
The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which is being developed as an alternative to GPS, will be completed around 2020, according to the CASTC.
The Long March-7 carrier rocket is expected to become the main carrier for space launches. It is a medium-sized, two-stage rocket that can carry up to 13.5 tonnes into LEO.
Developers will continue to improve the Long March series to make them safer, better designed for transportation and more flexible in various tasks to catch up with advanced international levels, Yang said.