BEIJING (Reuters) - China has launched its new Long March-5 heavy rocket, state media said, sending its payload into orbit in the country's latest step in advancing its space exploration program.

The launch comes after China began its longest manned space mission last month, sending two astronauts to spend a month aboard a space laboratory that is part of a broader plan to have a permanent manned space station in service around 2022.

The rocket, larger than previous versions of China's Long-March carrier rockets, blasted off on Thursday night from a pad in the southern province of Hainan, state news agency Xinhua said, a launch intended to verify its design and performance.

"Its successful launch has propelled China to the forefront of the world in terms of rocket carrying capacity, and marks a milestone in China's transition from a major player in space to a major power in space," Xinhua cited the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee and powerful Central Military Commission as saying in a letter.

The two-stage rocket's ability to put 25 tonnes of payload into low-Earth orbit and 14 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit gives it a carrying capacity 2.5 times larger than previous models, Xinhua said.

"With the heavy-lift carrier rocket, China can build a permanent manned space station and explore the moon and Mars," the news agency said.

Advancing China's space program is a priority for Beijing, which insists it is for peaceful purposes.

The U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China's increasing space capabilities, saying it was pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations using space-based assets in a crisis.

Despite its space program's advancements for military, commercial and scientific purposes, China is still playing catch-up to established space powers the United States and Russia.

China's Jade Rabbit moon rover landed on the moon in late 2013 to great national fanfare, but soon suffered severe technical difficulties.

The rover and the Chang'e 3 probe that carried it there were the first "soft landing" on the moon since 1976. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had accomplished the feat earlier.

U.S. companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, are now developing commercial space flight capabilities. Both companies are developing reusable rockets, and SpaceX has put forward the ambitious goal of a human mission to Mars as early as 2024.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Michael Perry)