China announced on Monday that it is upgrading the Long March-6 rocket with four additional boosters to increase its lifting capacity. This is ahead of a busy year of launches including the Chang’e-5 mission to bring back soil samples from the moon.
The improved medium-lift carrier rocket will embark on its space trek in a year or two, mainly for commercial launches, according to its designers at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. The rocket wrapped up two space tests in September 2015 and November 2017, carrying 20 satellites and three satellites respectively.
The three-stage rocket is 29.3 meters long, with a launch weight of 103 tons and can carry one ton of payload into a sun-synchronous orbit. Long March-6 is the first Chinese carrier rocket that uses non-toxic, non-polluting fuel – it runs on liquid oxygen and kerosene.
Beijing wants to develop rockets that might eventually be superior to the US, but the Long March rockets are fragile and prone to accidents.
Early last year Elon Musk’s Space X Falcon Heavy negated Chinese state media’s cheers about its indigenous rockets, which have launched some 170 satellites into space since the 1970s.
The Long March V, which has the biggest capacity of any Chinese rocket to date, put some 25 tons of cargo into orbit on its maiden launch in November 2016. Theoretically, it could ferry a 5-ton load to Mars. But that is less than a third of the 16.8 tons the Falcon Heavy is capable of carrying to Mars (a payload of 16.8 tons).
China also had to endure the embarrassment of a bungled launch in 2017. That mission, in July, had to be aborted due to cascading engine failures, as the Long March V cast a 7.5-ton satellite into the Pacific. The mishap effectively postponed Beijing’s Chang’e-4 lunar program by almost a year, till the end of 2018.
Xinhua has also noted that the Long March V, the jewel in the crown of China’s engineering, may not be able to propel a Chinese shuttle, with taikonauts and rover, to the moon, which is the ultimate goal of Beijing’s lunar exploration program. It has the stated goal of doing that by the 2030s.
China will have to come up with a more powerful rocket for such a feat. But, given the sheer strength of the Falcon Heavy’s 27 Merlin 1D engines, it should be a breeze for it to send American astronauts back to the moon.
The Long March 9 rocket, earmarked for Beijing’s manned lunar project, has an anticipated maximum payload of 140 tons to Low Earth Orbit and 50 tons to Lunar Transfer Orbit. That would put China well in the game.
But it will take a lot of serious development and testing before that goal is achieved.