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China launches giant Long March rocket as space race heats up

By KARI LINDBERG | Bloomberg | Published: December 27, 2019

China on Friday launched a Long March 5 rocket from the island province of Hainan, a key step in its ambitions to reach Mars and cement its place as a major power in space exploration.

The country's largest carrier rocket, with a diameter of 16 feet, blasted off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center at 8:45 p.m. local time and entered orbit about 15 minutes later, according to a live broadcast from CCTV. The unmanned rocket was carrying a communications satellite named Shijian 20 that is expected to be deployed into orbit.

This is China's third launch of the Long March 5. An earlier version of the rocket malfunctioned less than six minutes after liftoff in 2017, pushing back the schedule for Mars missions to mid-2020 from late 2019.

"In the context of the Mars 2020 mission, this rocket is essential -- they have no other rocket that can do that mission," said Blaine Curcio, founder of Orbital Gateway Consulting in Hong Kong. "While a failure later this month would not 100% rule out a Mars 2020 Long March 5 mission, it would make it astronomically less likely."

China's President Xi Jinping has ambitious plans for space exploration, and the country has outdone both the U.S. and Russia in terms of its number of orbital launches with 33 in 2019 before this Long March 5 attempt and 39 the previous year. There were two failures this year. In January, China became the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon.

Missions involving the Long March 5 will include sending a lunar rover named Chang'e 5 to bring back samples from the moon's surface, as well as sending spacecraft to Mars.

Faced with China's space exploration push, the U.S. is also stepping up its efforts, with President Donald Trump this month signing into law a new military branch named Space Force as commanders express concerns about the space warfare capabilities of China and Russia. India too has been expanding with the successful launch of its Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft, though the country suffered a setback when its Vikram lander crashed on the moon in September.

It's not just countries. Chinese venture capitalists are trying to rival the likes of Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. ISpace, also known as Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Ltd., became the first private company to successfully launch a rocket into orbit in July following failures by private firms Landspace and OneSpace earlier in the year.

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