HELSINKI — China has conducted a series of successful hot fire tests for engines designed to power a launch vehicle capable of sending astronauts to the moon.

A 300-second mission duty cycle test of a kerosene-liquid oxygen engine was conducted Oct. 23, the Academy of Aerospace Liquid Propulsion Technology (AALPT) announced. The engine has completed three successful tests totaling 650 seconds since late September.

A pair of the engines—sometimes referred to as the YF-100M—will power the second stage of a new generation crew launch vehicle. The vacuum-optimized engine will use a titanium alloy nozzle.

A liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen engine for the rocket’s third stage also recently passed the milestone of 10,000 seconds of testing, the Beijing Aerospace Testing Technology Research Institute said in a statement Oct. 29.

The institute is, like AALPT, ultimately owned by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). CASC is a giant state-owned space and defense enterprise and the country’s main space contractor. 

The new rocket will combine a trio of five-meter-diameter cores, each equivalent to the size of the first stage of China’s current largest rocket, the Long March 5. Each core will use a cluster of seven YF-100K kerolox engines, which are uprated versions of the YF-100 engines which power the side boosters of the Long March 5. Work on the YF-100K is  in advanced stages.

The new rocket is sometimes referred to as the Long March 5 Dengyue (“moon landing”) or Long March 5G. It will be capable of sending 27 metric tons into trans-lunar injection. A pair of the new rockets will be capable of sending a crewed spacecraft and, separately, a landing stack, to lunar orbit. This would allow two astronauts to make a landing on the moon. 

Senior Chinese space officials say the country will be capable of executing this idea for a short-term lunar stay mission before 2030.

China is also aiming to hold a test launch of a two-stage version of the rocket in 2026, before testing the larger, three stage variant. The partially reusable, single-stick, two-stage variant will be used to send a new generation crew spacecraft into low Earth orbit, allowing it to access the Tiangong space station.

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. The lunar lander segment remains one of the more secretive aspects of China’s prospective moon landing architecture.

The country is also planning to construct an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) on the moon in the 2030s. The project will be implemented with Russia, according to a roadmap unveiled in St Petersburg in 2021.

Meanwhile progress continues on another Chinese super heavy-lift launch vehicle with a test of the 25-ton thrust YF-79 expander cycle liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen engine, official publication China Space News reported early September. 

The engine is understood to power the third stage of one concept for the under-development Long March 9 rocket, which could launch before the end of the decade. The Long March 9 will be used for lunar and space infrastructure launches, including a potential space-based solar power program.

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...