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

HELSINKI — A new heavy-lift rocket designed to be capable of sending Chinese astronauts to the moon could have its first flight in 2026, according to a senior engineer.

Long Lehao, a senior space industry figure and Long March launch vehicle designer, told state media CCTV Dec. 10 that the new rocket would launch for the first time around 2026. Long appeared in a television segment celebrating the 400th Long March rocket launch.

Long stated that the kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket could be used to put Chinese astronauts on the moon before 2030, echoing the recent views of Ye Peijian, a senior official within China’s lunar program. Other flights such as circumlunar missions were noted as possibilities for the new rocket.

The timeline was revealed a month after NASA’s inspector general warned that the U.S. return to the moon under the Artemis program could be delayed beyond 2025.

The new-generation crewed launch vehicle first emerged as a concept at a 2018 airshow. It is understood to have gained formal government backing earlier this year. However, this appears the first time a timeframe for an inaugural has been publicly announced. 

Long said the rocket will use ready-made, mature technologies, adding that he believes “the development progress will be relatively fast.”

The in-development crew-rated rocket borrows technology and tooling from what is currently China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5. That rocket debuted in 2016, providing China with a potentially quicker route to the moon than previous plans relying on a super heavy-lift Long March 9.

The envisioned crew-rated rocket would be capable of sending 27 metric tons into lunar transfer orbit. Standing 90 meters tall, it will combine three Long March 5 cores, each five meters in diameter. The rocket will be powered by clusters of YF-100K engines — uprated versions of the YF-100 kerosene engines used by China’s Long March 5, 6 and 7 launchers.

Long Lehao in June presented a mission architecture that uses two launches of the new crew rocket, which he referred to as Long March 5 “Dengyue” (“moon landing”). The plan would put two astronauts on the lunar surface for six hours. 

China has not formally approved a crewed moon landing mission, but space industry officials are increasingly talking openly of such possibilities and timelines. The country has also committed to developing a joint China-Russia International Lunar Research Station that will first be a robotic base but aims to establish habitats for humans in the 2030s.

Other required elements for crewed missions are also already in development. China tested a prototype new-generation crew capsule for missions beyond low Earth orbit in May 2020. The country is also known to be working on a lunar lander.

An even larger rocket, the Long March 9, is also being developed. Its role will be for launching large infrastructure such as elements of the planned ILRS. That launcher is currently slated for a first launch in 2028, with previous reports stating 2030.

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...