China launches new spacecraft, plans to build new space station

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China launched a newly designed spacecraft on Tuesday as part of its program to build an orbiting space station, boosting its aspirations to compete with the United States, Russia and private companies in the exploration of the space.

The official Xinhua news agency said the unmanned spacecraft and its return capsule had been thrown into space aboard a Long March 5B rocket on its first flight Tuesday night from the Wenchang launch site in the province of Hainan, in the south of the island.

The capsule would be an improvement over the Shenzhou capsule based on the Soyuz model from the former Soviet Union and can carry six astronauts rather than just three.

China previously launched an experimental space station which then crashed into the atmosphere, and plans to build a larger facility with several modules to compete with the scale of the International Space Station.

China’s burgeoning space program hit a milestone last year by landing a spacecraft on the far unexplored side of the moon, and plans to launch a lander and rover on Mars.

The program has grown rapidly, particularly since its first crewed mission in 2003, and has sought to cooperate with space agencies in Europe and elsewhere.

The United States, however, has banned most space cooperation with China for the sake of national security, preventing China from participating in the International Space Station and urging it to gradually develop its own equipment. The new Long March 5B rocket was specially designed to propel modules of the future space station into orbit.

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