HELSINKI — China’s attempt to launch its first new-generation Long March 7A rocket ended in failure Monday, resulting in a classified satellite apparently failing to enter geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Liftoff from the coastal Wenchang Satellite Launch Center occurred at 9:34 a.m. Eastern. Launch was initially confirmed by images and footage shared online by distant spectators.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., (CASC), which developed and manufactured the rocket, typically announces launches following declaration of mission success. Similar mission profiles are usually announced to be successful around an hour after launch, but no announcement was made. 

State news agency confirmed failure (Chinese) just under two hours after launch, with no cause nor nature of the failure stated. An investigation into the anomaly will follow.

The payload for the launch was earlier stated to be named ‘new technology verification satellite-6’. No further details were released ahead of launch.

Measures to counter the spread of the novel coronavirus have been in force at Wenchang spaceport, though launch campaigns continued.

The launch preparations were conduced discreetly at Wenchang. No announcement of rollout was made nor were airspace closure notices issued. Previous launches from Wenchang, including the return to flight of the Long March 5 in December, were live streamed.

Preparations for the test flight of the Long March 5B are also underway at Wenchang. It is unclear if the Long March 7A failure will have any impact on the launch planned for mid-late April.

Potential impacts of failure

The Long March 7A is a variant of the standard Long March 7, which has flown twice. A 2017 mission to test the Tianzhou refueling spacecraft with Tiangong-2 space lab was its most recent activity. The launcher uses RP-1 and liquid oxygen propellant and could replace older models using toxic propellants.

It modular design means it shares common engines with other new, cryogenic Long March vehicles. Depending on the cause of the anomaly, the failure could impact upcoming missions.

The RP-1/liquid oxygen side boosters and core stage share commonalities with the Long March 5, including YF-100 engines. An issue with these engines could potentially impact planned Long March 5 missions, including China’s first independent interplanetary mission—to Mars—in July. It could also have knock-on effects for China’s space station plans.

If the issue was with the second stage YF-115 engines, the impact of the failure could be limited to the Long March 6 and 7 series rockets. A new variant of the Long March 6 developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology is expected later in 2020.

An upper stage problem could see knock-on effects for the older, Long March 3 series rockets, as the Long March 7A third stage is adapted from the Long March 3B. The 3B is the current workhorse for Chinese GTO launches.

Long March 7A

The 60.13-meter-long Long March 7A  has a liftoff mass of around 573 metric tons, according to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, a CASC subsidiary.

The 7A uses the same 3.35-meter-diameter kerolox core and four 2.25-meter-diameter side boosters as the stand Long March 7 but includes an additional hydrolox third stage. The added stage is adapted from the older generation Long March 3B rocket to allow it to send payloads to GTO. 

The new launch vehicle could become China’s main rocket for communications satellite missions. The modularised, cryogenic rocket could have benefits in terms of cost, but also in reducing threat to life and property. 

The older, hypergolic Long March 3B is China’s current option for launches to GTO. The 3B launches from deep inland at Xichang, Sichuan province, resulting in spent stages frequently falling on inhabited areas. The Long March 7A launches from the coastal Wenchang spaceport, meaning its flightpath is over the sea. 

China’s new Long March 5 and 7 series rockets are a new generation of launch vehicles. They are designed to boost the country’s launch capabilities and to some extent replace the ageing hypergolic Long March launch vehicles. 

The new rockets are delivered to Wenchang on the island province of Hainan via specially designed cargo ships. The older, smaller diameter Long March vehicles are transported by the nation’s rail system to inland launch centers.

China’s nascent commercial space sector is also seeing the development of new light- and medium-lift launchers which could potentially provide launch services.

Coronavirus impacts space activities

Launch of the Long March 7A was conducted despite the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. 

A new Long March 5B mission, expected to launch from Wenchang in mid-late April, will involved an uncrewed test flight of a new generation crewed spacecraft. If successful the following Long March 5B mission is expected to launch the core module of China’s space station into LEO.

China appears committed to conducting more than 40 launches across 2020, despite the outbreak. Expace, a launch service provider spin-off from defense contractor CASIC, has resumed activities despite its facilities being close to the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei. The city and province had been in lockdown, preventing work and transport of Kuaizhou rockets to Jiuquan space center in the northwest of China.

European rocket launches have meanwhile been suspended. NASA centers are switching to remote work with further impacts uncertain. Roscosmos announced Monday the cancelation of media attendance for the Soyuz MS-16 launch scheduled April 9. 

Updated Mar. 17 to correct launch time, previously stated as 10:34 a.m. Eastern.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.