|Long March 5B rocket lifts off - Reuters|
The official Xinhua News Agency said the unmanned spacecraft and its return capsule were sent into space aboard a Long March 5B rocket in its debut flight on Tuesday.
The capsule, set off from the Wenchang launch centre in the southern island province of Hainan, is reportedly an improvement on the Shenzhou capsule, based on the former Soviet Union’s Soyuz model, and can carry six astronauts rather than just three.
The new Long March 5B rocket has been specially designated to propel modules of the future space station into orbit.
China hopes to rival the United States, Russia and private companies in outer space exploration.
The country earlier launched an experimental space station that later crashed back through the atmosphere, and plans to build a larger facility with multiple modules to rival the scale of the International Space Station.
China’s burgeoning space programme achieved a milestone last year by landing a spacecraft on the largely unexplored far side of the moon and has plans to launch a lander and rover on Mars.
The programme has developed rapidly, especially since its first crewed mission in 2003, and has sought co-operation with space agencies in Europe and elsewhere.
The United States has banned most space co-operation with China out of national security concerns, prompting China to develop its own equipment.