China says its new prototype spacecraft has “successfully landed”, marking an important step in the country’s ambitions to operate a permanent space station and eventually send astronauts to the moon.
Launched on Tuesday, the spacecraft arrived safely at a predetermined spot on Friday, the China Manned Space Agency said, adding that the vessel’s cabin structure had been confirmed on site as being intact.
The test vessel was launched with a cargo capsule on board a new type of carrier rocket from the Wenchang launch site on the southern island of Hainan. The agency said the vessel was in orbit for two days and 19 hours and had completed a number of experiments.
The safe landing followed a snag in an earlier part of the test when an unspecified “anomaly” occurred during the return of the cargo capsule, which was designed to transport equipment.
It is hoped the spaceship will one day transport astronauts to a space station that China plans to complete by 2022 – and eventually to the moon.
The new prototype expands the number of crew that can be sent into space to six from three in an earlier model.
Observers said the successful mission marked a milestone for China.
Andrew Jones, who reports on China’s space activities for the SpaceNews website, said the country can “move ahead with its space station plans, and the first module may now launch in early 2021”.
“The successful landing of the new spacecraft from a high orbit also shows China is serious about sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit – something only NASA has achieved – and eventually sending its astronauts to the Moon,” he added.
Chen Lan, an independent analyst at gotaikonauts.com, which specialises in China’s space programme, added: “We can say that China has now similar manned space capability of the US and Russia.”
China has invested heavily in its space programme in recent years.
Assembly of the Chinese Tiangong space station, whose name translates to Heavenly Palace, is expected to commence this year and be completed in 2022.
China became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon in January 2019, deploying a lunar rover that has driven about 450 metres (1,500 feet) so far.