HELSINKI — China is pressing ahead with the Long March 9 super heavy launch vehicle for crewed lunar, robotic deep space exploration and space infrastructure.

The massive rocket is in the research and development stage with a test launch planned for around 2030, said Xu Hongliang, secretary-general of the China National Space Administration, speaking at the Wenchang International Aerospace Forum Nov. 24.

The event followed the launch of the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission from the Wenchang spaceport that morning local time. The mission was launched by China’s current largest rocket, the 878-metric-ton, 57-meter-long Long March 5. 

In contrast the Long March 9 will be 93 meters long, feature a 10-meter-diameter core, have a mass at liftoff of 4,140 metric tons. It will have four five-meter-diameter side boosters comparable to a Long March 5 first stage. The Long March 9 is designed be capable of lifting 140 tons to LEO or 50 tons to trans lunar injection.

The Long March 9 has long been stated as part of long term plans to send Chinese astronauts to the moon and facilitate deep space exploration. However the launcher’s exact role is still not clearly defined as China mulls pathways to robotic and human exploration of the moon.

Potential missions for the Long March 9 include a single-rocket Mars sample return, though a two-launcher profile using Long March 5 and 3B rockets may be preferred. Construction of a more tentative and technologically challenging space-based solar power project has also been slated as a possible task for the Long March 9.

The launcher is being developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), an institute belonging to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), a giant state-owned enterprise and the country’s main space contractor.

A presentation at the recent International Astronautical Congress CyberSpace edition reveals that China has made progress on the high-thrust engines required to power the Long March 9.

The first stage of the launcher will use four, dual nozzle 500 ton-thrust engines sometimes referred to as the YF-130. The assembly of the first YF-130 kerosene-liquid oxygen engine was completed in 2019 and ready for hot-fire test operation, according to Hui Chen of the Xi’an Aerospace Propulsion Institute, belonging to CASC.

Component technologies including high-power, high-efficiency turbopumps, high-pressure gas generators, wide-range thrust regulators, high-pressure and a large flow main LOX valve have all been verified. 

The Long March 9 is not explicitly stated to be reusable. However a “space transportation roadmap” presented by CASC since 2017 features the stated goal of making all of China’s launch vehicles reusable by around 2035.

Xu also noted that China was developing a reusable Earth-space transportation system to improve Chinese access to space. China in September launched a secretive “reusable experimental spacecraft”, widely speculated to be a winged space vehicle.

Alternative—or parallel—heavy launcher?

Another heavy lift launch vehicle, using three, five-meter-diameter first stage cores and clusters of YF-100K engines, is also being proposed by CALT for use as a human-rated launcher for crewed lunar missions.

While an architecture for crewed lunar missions to the moon presented at the 2020 China Space Conference in September did not feature the Long March 9, the reasoning is that the latter is required for major infrastructure to be delivered to the lunar surface in order to facilitate longer term stays on the moon.

The new launcher for human deep space missions is not yet apparently approved. It could however receive formal backing with the introduction of a new Chinese Five Year Plan for the period 2021-2025.

Long March 8 arrives

CASC’s first launch vehicle with a reusable first stage will be the Long March 8. The first flight model has been delivered to Wenchang and rolled out for a rehearsal. Launch is set for December 20.

This first Long March 8 will however be an expendable version, with the launcher not being upgraded to be capable of vertical landings and being reused until around 2025

Commercial Chinese launch companies are meanwhile developing their own reusable launch vehicles. Landspace aims to test launch the methane-LOX Zhuque-2 next year before upgrading to a variable thrust, VTVL first stage. 

Another, iSpace, which reached orbit in 2019 with a light solid rocket, is developing its methalox Hyperbola-2 to directly feature first stage reusability. This month the Beijing-based firm performed wind tunnel tests of a test first stage article and next year plans takeoff and landing tests at the meter, kilometer and 100-kilometer level.

Galactic Energy, which recently successfully held its first orbital launch, is also developing a medium-lift launcher. The Pallas-1, planned for late 2022, will burn kerosene and liquid oxygen and be capable of VTVL.

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...