HELSINKI — China is showcasing a number of elements for future human lunar landing missions at a major airshow and stating that super heavy-lift rocket will be ready by 2028.

Two super heavy-lift rockets, the return capsule from a prototype new-generation crew spacecraft, its parachutes and a Chang’e-5 spacecraft are on display at the 13th Zhuhai Airshow, which runs Sept. 28–Oct. 3.

The in-development launchers and crew spacecraft could provide China with the capabilities to land astronauts on the moon by around 2030. Beyond this the largest rocket would also be able to deliver architecture to the lunar surface for long-term stays. 

A model of Chang’e-5 was also showcased. In 2020 the mission demonstrated some of the maneuvers and technologies—lunar orbit rendezvous and docking and high-speed skip reentry—required to get astronauts safely back home.

Together the exhibits illustrate China’s current plans for getting to the moon and back and the changes to previous thinking. 

New crew launch vehicle

The so-called new-generation crewed launch vehicle stands among models of various Long March vehicles at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) exhibition area. 

CASC is developing the new launcher to meet requirements from the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) which is responsible for the country’s human spaceflight endeavors. 

It will comprise of three, five-meter-diameter first stage cores based on the Long March 5 and clusters of YF-100K engines—uprated versions of the YF-100 kerosene engines used by sChina’s new Long March 5, 6 and 7 launchers—and be capable of sending 27 tons into lunar transfer orbit.

A prototype Chinese new-generation spacecraft undergoing testing.
A prototype Chinese new-generation spacecraft undergoing testing. Credit: CCTV/Framegrab

The new launcher will be 90 meters in length and have a takeoff mass of 2,211 tons, up from 87 meters and around 2,000 tons in earlier reports. It will have the capacity to launch a new-generation crew spacecraft with deep space travel capabilities, including withstanding temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Celsius on reentry.

A prototype of the new spacecraft and successor to the Shenzhou, used for low Earth orbit missions, was launched in May 2020. The charred reentry capsule and parachutes from the mission were also on display.

In June senior space industry official and Long March rocket designer Long Lehao presented a mission architecture using two launches of the new crew rocket, referred to as “Long March 5 Dengyue (“moon landing”),” to put two astronauts on the lunar surface for six hours. Such a mission would use the new crew spacecraft and could be possible by around 2030, according to the presentation. China is also known to be working on a lunar lander, though a design has not been publicly unveiled.

The rocket will also inherit the design, reliability and high safety standards of the Long March 2F launcher used to launch Shenzhou missions, Liu Bing, deputy director designer of the General Design Department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), told Science and Technology Daily. The new launcher concept first appeared at the 2018 edition of the Zhuhai Airshow. 

Capable of launching 70 tons to LEO, the crew launcher would have nearly three times more payload capacity than China’s current largest rocket, the Long March 5.

CASC says the launcher will be used for future human lunar exploration projects such as as circumlunar, lunar orbit and landing missions. A provisional date for its first flight has not been revealed and appearance is not finalized. 

Long March 9 due in 2028

Also on display is the Long March 9, a super heavy-lift launcher long undergoing study and development. Notably the 10-meter-diameter rocket is to be 103 meters long and be capable of lifting around 140 tons of payload to low Earth orbit or 50 tons to trans-lunar injection and comparable to the SLS.

The launcher will be used for launching the lunar landing stack and infrastructure for the planned China-Russia International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). It could launch missions such as a planned Mars sample return with its 44-ton capacity to trans-Mars injection, though a two-launch profile using smaller rockets could be followed instead.

A first flight for the Long March 9 is now expected in 2028. A test of critical systems for a hydrolox engine for the rocket’s second stage was successfully carried out Sept. 23. Progress on the first stage kerolox engines was reported in March, while also developing 10-meter-diameter aluminum alloy rings and large storage tanks. 

Previously released figures put the launcher’s first flight target as 2030. Earlier dimensions were 93 meters in length and a mass at liftoff of 4,140 metric tons. Long’s June presentation also included a new concept for a reusable Long March 9 version which would use clusters of smaller engines than currently being developed. 

The latter version is unofficial but could be developed alongside the more traditional design. A reusable version could be used to meet launch demands for a potential space-based solar power megaproject, into which China is conducting early research, including microwave transmission.

The standard Long March 9 had been part of China’s earlier moon landing mission profiles. It would launch the lunar stack while a Long March 5B would send the crewed spacecraft segment into low Earth orbit for rendezvous and docking. 

China now appears to favor a lunar rendezvous and docking approach using the new-generation crew launcher which may not require the Long March 9.

China has not officially approved a human lunar landing project but is seen to be developing the requisite capabilities and hardware. Formal approval could come with the 15th Five-year plan (2026-2030) if sufficient progress and lunar mission success rates are continued. China will also release a new white paper on space in the coming months, highlighting priorities for 2021-2025.

A render of the Long March 9 lifting off.
A render of the Long March 9 lifting off. Credit: CASC

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...