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China launches new Long March 7 rocket in preparation for planned space station

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New boosters pave the way for Tiangong-3 space station in 2020s

Xinhua

China's Long March 7 rocket launched successfully for the first time this weekend, the second in a trio of new boosters the country will use to launch and supply its planned Tiangong-3 space station. The 53-meter-tall Long March 7 carried a number of small satellites into orbit as well as a subscale, dummy version of China's next-generation crew capsule. The rocket is the middle child in the country's new family of launchers, sitting between the heavier Long March 5  and lighter Long March 6.

The launch marks a number of small but signifiant milestones for China's space program. It's the most powerful rocket ever built in the country, notes SpaceFlightNow, and is capable of lifting 30,000 pounds into orbit. (Although this record will be surpassed by the Long March 5, which will carry up to 55,000 pounds when it's tested for the first time later this year.)

The Long March 7 was also launched from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China's fourth and southernmost launch site. Launching from nearer the equator means using less propellant, saving the country roughly $6 million each time it blasts off. The actual fuel used by the rocket is superior too — a combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen, rather than the more toxic hypergolic propellants used in China's older rockets. 

The country plans to use the Long March 7 to carry out supply missions to its planned space station. China launched its first uncrewed space lab, Tiangong-1, in 2011, and plans to assemble and launch a 60-tonne upgrade, Tiangong-3, by 2022.