A Mars probe is launched on a Long March-5 rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in south China's Hainan Province. Credit: Xinhua

One small step for CASC. One giant leap for China’s space program.

The rocket crucial for China’s ambitious space exploration plans, including manned missions to the moon and sample return missions from Mars, just passed a big hurdle.

According to a report from CGTN.com, China has successfully concluded a trial run on the most powerful rocket engine ever developed in the nation.

The 500-tonne-thrust liquid oxygen/kerosene rocket engine is designed to power the Long March-9 rocket, the country’s super-heavy carrier rocket, said its developer, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).

The trial marks a breakthrough in China’s rocket engine technologies, and will lay a solid foundation for the follow-up development of heavy-lift carrier rockets, said the CASC.

The Long March-9 will be capable of sending 100 tons to the Moon and is expected to enter service around 2030, Xu Hongliang, secretary-general of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), said at the Wenchang International Aviation and Aerospace Forum held last November.

The carrying capacity of the rocket will be more than five times that of the Long March-5, currently the most notable in China’s rocket family, CGTN.com reported.

The latter has been used in the country’s Chang’e-5 lunar mission and Tianwen-1 Mars mission last year.

The CASC has estimated that about 10 Long March-9 rockets will be needed each year from 2030 to 2035 to meet the country’s robust demand for heavy-lift rockets. 

The Long March-9 heavy lift rocket will be more than five times that of the Long March-5B, shown above. Credit: Handout.

According to SpaceNews.com, China last year tested a new-generation crew spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, demonstrating a commitment to developing crewed lunar capabilities.

The Chang’e-5 lunar sample return also adopted a complex mission profile involving a lunar orbit  rendezvous and docking, verifying some of the techniques and technologies needed to get astronauts home from the moon.

China is also discussing the possibility of establishing an International Lunar Research Station with Russia, SpaceNews reported.

The project would build on the planned Chang’e-6, 7 and 8 missions and potentially lead to long-term human stays on the moon, suggesting China has serious, solidifying plans for using the new launchers.

According to sources, it appears the Long March-9 will send up infrastructure and supplies, while humans will ride in a different proposed vehicle, currently known only as the “921 Rocket,” UniverseToday.com reported.

Whether both vehicles end up being approved and developed in parallel is still an open question.

It is also unclear whether the Long March-9 will be reusable.

If not, it may hamper the rocket’s longevity, as the CNSA hopes to make all its launch vehicles reusable by 2035, if it can.

The CNSA’s first attempt at a reusable first stage will be the Long March-8, which launched for the first time last December (in an expendable form), UniverseToday reported.

China has been pushing hard in recent years to become a contender in space exploration.

In recent years, it has ramped up its robotic programs, completing the first Lunar sample return in over 40 years in 2020, and successfully landing two Lunar rovers.

One of the rovers, Chang’e 4, was the first spacecraft ever to soft land on the far side of the Moon, and is still operating.

The CNSA also launched a robotic mission to Mars last year, named Tianwen-1, which arrived in Mars orbit in February, UniverseToday reported.

Tianwen-1 is carrying a rover that will attempt to join NASA’s Perseverance rover on the Martian surface in May or June.

The CNSA’s next major undertaking between now and the Long March-9’s first flight in 2030 is to build a modular space station in low earth orbit. The first modules are set to launch this spring. 

Sources: CGTN.com, SpaceNews.com, UniverseToday.com, NASA