Model of China's unnamed new launch vehicle on display in Zhuhai in November. Credit: CASC

HELSINKI — China is progressing with the development of two super heavy-lift rockets for crewed missions and infrastructure launches to the moon, according to officials.

The new launchers are designed to allow China to conduct short-term lunar landings before 2030 and send large pieces of infrastructure to the moon in the 2030s respectively.

Though China’s government has not formally approved a crewed lunar landing, work on the necessary elements of such a program is underway and the country’s space actors and state media are openly talking of its lunar ambitions.

Progress on the rockets—a new generation crew launch vehicle and a super heavy-lift launcher known as the Long March 9—has been moving ahead in an orderly manner, according to Chen Xiaofei, of the general design department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), a major institute under China’s main space contractor, talking with state media China Central Television.

The new crew launcher is also referred to unofficially as the CZ5DY, taking the CZ initials for the Chinese for Long March, and DY meaning “dengyue” or moon landing. The rocket is based on technology and tooling developed for the Long March 5 heavy rocket variants that have launched China’s space station modules, Mars mission and a lunar sample-return.

A two-stage version of the rocket, for sending a new generation crew spacecraft into low Earth orbit, is envisioned for a test flight in 2026. The three-core, three-stage variant capable of sending 27 metric tons into trans-lunar injection is expected to launch later in the decade.

The kerosene-fueled rocket will use clusters of uprated versions of the existing YF-100 engine and the launcher is also intended to be made reusable. Last year other CALT officials stated that two launches of the rocket would be able to facilitate a six-hour stay on the lunar surface.

The Long March 9 will boast a payload capacity of around 140 tons to LEO and will launch elements for the planned International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) jointly planned by China and Russia.

CCTV did not provide details of the progress made. However, CALT earlier this month announced completion of structural tests related to the CZ5DY, and in April tested titanium engine components for the launcher.

The update on progress was provided after China marked 103 consecutive successful launches with its Long March rocket family, eclipsing its previous record of 102 set between 1996 and 2011.

Chen also stated that CALT’s first reusable rocket—thought to be the Long March 8—would complete relevant flight tests within the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025). 

Global Times, a Beijing tabloid, published Aug. 21 strident views on the respective progress, approaches and motives of U.S. and Chinese crewed lunar exploration plans.

“Space observers also pointed out that as NASA is trying hard to relive its Apollo glories, China is working on innovative plans to carry out its own crewed moon landing missions,” the article read.

The piece also criticized recent comments made by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in which he claimed China would occupy the moon and claimed China focuses “more on technology readiness in a rather broad time frame, going forward steadily and surely,” rather than the “U.S.’ practice of setting specific year deadlines.”

Global Times quoted Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of the Beijing-based Aerospace Knowledge magazine, as saying, “China’s crewed moon landing is more in line with scientific principles, but NASA might grow more hostile against China in the space domain given the huge pressure it is facing to maintain its global leadership in moon exploration,” in response to a question on the possibility of a new space race.

Both the U.S. and China are planning robotic and crewed landings at the lunar south pole in the coming years under respective Artemis and ILRS programs.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...