The launch of the four-stage Pioneer I rocket took place on 16 September at north China's Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre, a spokesman for China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC) told state media on Wednesday.

The event makes China the only third country capable of developing such rockets after the United States and Russia, he added.

The rocket is capable of putting payloads of up to 100kg into orbit around the earth to help with resource exploration, environmental monitoring and surveys.

The announcement comes just weeks ahead of China's planned manned space mission, which is widely expected to take place next month, based on media reports. 

Rapid lift-off

The People's Daily website said the rocket would be convenient for short-term, short notice use, such as to launch satellites to monitor sudden natural disasters or to broadcast sports events.

It takes 12 hours or less to prepare for the launch of a satellite using the Pioneer I rocket.

"On the commercial side, Chinese space launching capability presents a very competitive alternative to Americans and Europeans"

Robert Karniol,
Asia-Pacific editor,
Jane's Defence Weekly

In contrast, about three months are needed to prepare the traditional liquid-fuel launch vehicle, including the time for shipping, installation and testing, and filling it with liquid fuel.

The Pioneer I also can be launched from a mobile pad, the spokesman said.

Competition

Regardless of whether launch vehicles are used for commercial or military purposes, experts said China's capability in producing launch vehicles was posing competition for other space powers, such as the United States.

"On the commercial side, Chinese space launching capability presents a very competitive alternative to Americans and Europeans," said Robert Karniol, Bangkok-based Asia-Pacific editor for Jane's Defence Weekly.

"The Chinese have been launching foreign satellites for some time, and have launched about 20 to date."

Military potential

Other countries are also alarmed by the potential military challenges China's space and satellite capabilities can pose for them, Karniol said.

"The Chinese military, like many militaries in other countries, have communication satellites, reconnaissance satellites, and have been developing navigation and global positioning satellites," Karniol said.

Officials at the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC) could not be reached for comment.