China reveals details for super-heavy-lift Long March 9 and reusable Long March 8 rockets


HELSINKI, Finland — A senior designer with the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology has presented updated details for an upcoming series of new rockets to expand China’s launch capabilities, including super-heavy-lift and reusable rockets.

Long Lehao, a chief designer with CALT, a major launch vehicle institute under the main contractor for China’s space activities, revealed the details in a lecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing on May 31.

Long gave an overview of the history and progress of Chinese launch vehicles before providing updates on new projects under development, notably the Long March 9.

The Long March 9 will be a Saturn 5-class super-heavy-lift rocket comparable in capacity to the Space Launch System currently being developed under NASA.

According to Long, the Long March 9 will be capable of lifting 140 metric tons to low Earth orbit, 50 tons to Earth-Moon transfer orbit, and 44 tons to Earth-Mars transfer orbit.

The 93-meter-high Long March 9 is expected to have a launch mass of over 4,000 metric tons, producing close to 6,000 tons of thrust.

The core stage will have a diameter of 10 meters while four boosters will each have a diameter of up to 5 meters. This would make the boosters comparable to the Long March 5, China’s largest rocket so far, which debuted in 2016 and last July suffered a first stage engine issue that prompted a redesign. A third flight of the rocket is expected around November.

The Long March 9 is slated to be ready for a test flight around 2030, with Long adding that progress on the project includes successful forging of 10-meter-diameter alloy rings and breakthroughs related to 500-ton-thrust kerosene-liquid oxygen and 220-ton-thrust hydrolox engines.

Crewed lunar landings, Mars sample return

The first major mission of the Long March 9 is expected to be a single-launch Mars sample return mission, while the rocket is also being designed to facilitate lunar missions, including crewed landings.

CALT has previously said that it is studying a mission profile which would see the Long March 5B—a variant of the Long March 5 to be used for low-Earth orbit launches, including lofting modules for the country’s space station—be used to launch the crewed spacecraft which would then rendezvous in LEO with the lunar spacecraft stack launched by the Long March 9 ahead of trans-lunar injection.

Toward this goal, two versions of a new generation crewed spacecraft are being developed, with a scale return-capsule test having been carried out in 2016. The debut of the Long March 5B, expected to follow a successful return-to-flight of the Long March 5, will include a new test related to the spacecraft in summer 2019.

Long also stated that the Long March 9 would be able to launch components for a space-based solar power system, a project which has been previously stated by senior Chinese aerospace and military figures to be under consideration.

Move to reusability

Long explained in the lecture that the Long March 8 would be CALT’s first rocket to attempt first stage reusability, which will launch for the first time in 2021.

As previously reported, the Long March 8 is based on the existing Long March rockets, using a core very similar to that of the 3.35-meter-diameter Long March 7, a new-generation medium-lift rocket that had its maiden flight in 2016, with the second stage to be based on the 3-meter-diameter liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen second stage of the older Long March 3A. The rocket will also use two solid propellant boosters, likely based on the Long March 11.

Long stated that both the first stage and boosters will attempt vertical landing.

The Long March 8 was originally intended to be an expendable rocket to increase China’s lift capacity for launches to sun-synchronous orbits, but the plans have changed to allow China to experiment with vertical landing and reusability.

China launched its first satellite into space in 1970, with a Long March 1 putting the Dongfanghong-1 satellite into orbit. The country has since developed a series of Long March rockets, which take their name from a mythologized retreat by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China in the 1930s.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which owns CALT, released a long-term space transportation roadmap in fall 2017 which stated 2035 as the target for achieving full reusability for its launch vehicles. Long did not, however, appear to comment on the possible reusability of the Long March 9.