China's space program has quietly begun preparations to launch a new range of Long March rockets to boost its space capabilities and carry out major projects.
The new Long March launch vehicles are designed to support the construction of the country's planned space station, the launch of large communication satellites and, possibly, attempt Falcon 9-style vertical landings.
This activity follows the dramatic and successful return-to-flight of the country's largest rocket, the Long March 5, in late December 2019.
Preparations for the first mission with one of the new Long March 7A rockets are already underway. In early January, Yuanwang-21, a specially designed cargo vessel, headed to Tianjin, a northern port city where some of China's Long March rockets are manufactured.
Yuanwang-21 collected what is expected to be the first Long March 7A rocket, a version of the 3.5-meter-diameter Long March 7 rocket that launched China's Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft in 2017.
While the first Long March 7 rockets launched to low Earth orbit (LEO), the new Long March 7A rocket will be capable of launching spacecraft to higher orbits.
The Long March 7A is modified with an extra third rocket stage of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen from the older Long March 3B, allowing it to lift payloads of between 5.5 and 7 metric tons into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
In geostationary orbits, satellites can stay fixed over a point on Earth as the planet rotates. These orbits are useful for television and other communications satellites, weather-monitoring satellites and early-warning satellites that can detect the telltale signs of ballistic missile launches.
The components of this new launch vehicle are now at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan island in the South China Sea, where they will undergo vertical integration in preparation for launch.
The rocket will likely launch from coastal Wenchang around March (as it will need to lift off ahead of the Long March 5B launch in April), with the payload to be the mysterious ‘new technology verification satellite-6.’ Notably, the rocket could be used as a replacement for the Long March 3B, which currently launches from Xichang, which is situated deep inland and often threatens settlements downrange.
New rocket, new crewed spacecraft
The first Long March 5B rocket, a new version of the huge Long March 5, which is designed to launch modules of the Chinese Space Station into LEO, has also just arrived at Wenchang. First up however it will be used to test out a new spacecraft for China’s astronauts.
The flight will carry : China'’s next-generation spacecraft for human spaceflight. The uncrewed flight of the as-yet-unnamed 21.6-ton spacecraft will test its performance in orbit, as well as how it fares during high-speed reentry, parachute deployment, landing and recovery. This new spacecraft will allow China to launch six astronauts and reduce costs because it is partially reusable and, like NASA'’s Orion spacecraft, which will allow crewed missions to travel to locations like the moon, Mars and deep space.
The new launcher has just passed a round of testing and is ready for its mission, according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). Cargo ships Yuanwang 21and 22 delivered the components of the Long March 5B on Feb. 6, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), the country's main space contractor.
The payload for this mission is additionally notable.
"The launch of Long March 5B will unveil a new chapter of China's manned space exploration," Yu Miao, head of the Beijing Institute of Space Science and Technology Information under CASC, told state media.
The first launch of the Long March 5B, which is 53.7 meters long (176 feet), 5 meters (5 feet) in diameter and 849 metric tons (936 U.S. tons) in weight, is set for mid- to late April 2020.
If this launch is successful, China will then be able to prepare to launch the first module of the Chinese Space Station. The module, the 22.5-metric-ton "Tianhe" core module, could then launch on the second Long March 5B as soon as early 2021.
Before this flight, China is expected to launch its 2020 Mars orbiter and rover mission and the Chang'e-5 lunar sample return missions, both on standard Long March 5 rockets from Wenchang.
Long March 8 liftoff (and landing)
Another new launch vehicle developed by CASC that will be ready for its first flight in 2020 is the Long March 8 rocket. The first Long March 8 launch will be China's first attempt at launching and landing the first stage of an orbital rocket — and if it's successful, it would be only the second country to demonstrate such capabilities.
Animated footage of the new launcher shows grid fins and landing legs similar to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which continues to seamlessly land back on Earth. However, different from the Falcon 9, the Long March 8 will apparently attempt to land with side boosters still attached.
The Long March 8 is designed to launch around 4.5 tons of cargo to an altitude of TK feet (700 kilometers) to a sun-synchronous orbit, filling a gap in current Chinese capabilities.
Wu Yitian, deputy chief engineer of Long March 8 carrier rocket, told CCTV that the launcher is designed to be cost-effective. "We want it to be a vital new force and the main force to compete in the commercial rocket market at home and abroad," Wu said.
In the future, new Chinese launchers will be tested by commercial partners. Three solid propellant rockets — Jielong-2 from China Rocket Co. Ltd., the Kuaizhou-11 rocket developed by defense contractor CASIC and the Ceres-1 of private firm Galactic Energy — are set to liftoff for the first time in 2020.