Saturn V re­born

The Long March 9 could steal the show in the race for the Moon and Mars, with sur­pris­ing con­se­quences

All About Space - - Contents - Re­ported by Jonathan O’Cal­laghan

China's Long March 9 is tipped to be the next rocket to take us back to the Moon

At the turn of the cen­tury China had yet to send a hu­man to space. But the 2003 launch of Yang Li­wei on the Shen­zhou 5 space­craft pro­pelled the coun­try’s space pro­gramme into the lime­light. Now, more than a decade on, their space ex­ploits have ad­vanced at a pace few thought pos­si­ble. They have launched hu­mans to an ex­per­i­men­tal space sta­tion, landed a rover on the Moon and are plan­ning a mis­sion to the far side of the Moon in late-2018. They have made no se­cret that their ul­ti­mate goal is to send hu­mans to the Moon, or even Mars. And to do so, they’re go­ing to need a mas­sive rocket.

Step for­ward the Long March 9, China’s an­swer to NASA’s Saturn V rocket. Re­vealed in de­tail in July 2018, this su­per-heavy-lift rocket would tower 93 me­tres (305 feet) high, and would have enough lift­ing ca­pac­ity to make ex­cit­ing ex­plo­ration mis­sions pos­si­ble. And while its in­au­gu­ral launch date of 2030 seems quite far off, China has been pretty suc­cess­ful in stick­ing to its plans so far.

“The project in­di­cates that China is set on be­com­ing a ma­jor space power, ca­pa­ble of match­ing and per­haps even sur­pass­ing in some ways the ex­ploits of the US and Soviet Union or Rus­sia,” An­drew Jones, a jour­nal­ist who re­ports on China’s

space pro­gramme, tells All About Space. “The aim will also be to boost China's level of high-end sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, bring­ing ben­e­fits to the econ­omy as well as in­spir­ing younger gen­er­a­tions and dis­play­ing to the pub­lic what China can achieve un­der the lead­er­ship of the Com­mu­nist Party.”

As its name im­plies, the Long March 9 is the lat­est in the Long March se­ries of rock­ets. Named for a fa­mous mil­i­tary re­treat by the Red Army from 1934, this fam­ily of rock­ets has com­pleted nearly 300 launches since 1970, with num­bers con­sid­er­ably ramp­ing up in the past ten years. Al­though there have been some no­table fail­ures, China has made huge strides with its rock­ets, launch­ing its big­gest ver­sion so far – the Long

March 5 – back in Novem­ber 2016. But the coun­try has large am­bi­tions, larger than can be ful­filled by its ex­ist­ing fleet of rock­ets.

Its pur­ported mis­sions are im­pres­sive. China has sug­gested it may look to build a base on the Moon or even send hu­mans to Mars, both of which would re­quire a large rocket like this. The in­au­gu­ral flight of the Long March 9 in 2030, mean­while, would be a Mars sam­ple re­turn mis­sion, land­ing an un­crewed lan­der on the Red Planet and bring­ing ma­te­rial back to Earth. NASA too is hop­ing to at­tempt such a mis­sion in the 2020s, but any de­lays and they may find them­selves in a race with the Chi­nese. “China could end up edg­ing the United States in pulling off such a mis­sion, which could po­ten­tially bring ev­i­dence of past or ex­tant ex­trater­res­trial life. Such a dis­cov­ery would have a pro­found in­flu­ence on hu­man his­tory, no mat­ter who makes it,” says Jones.

Es­sen­tially, the big­ger and more pow­er­ful your rocket, the more stuff you can take to space and the fur­ther you can go. This is why rock­ets come in all sizes, with the small­est – known as sound­ing rock­ets – just mak­ing a short hop into space. The big­gest, the heavy-lift rock­ets, are ca­pa­ble of tak­ing large satel­lites into geo­sta­tion­ary or­bit, or even send­ing probes into the dis­tant So­lar Sys­tem. How­ever, if you want to start send­ing peo­ple far away, have your eye on build­ing a space sta­tion or want to bring ma­te­rial back from Mars, you need a su­per-heavy-lift rocket.

Only the Saturn V ar­guably falls in this class, with the Soviet Union try­ing – and fail­ing on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions – to em­u­late its suc­cess with their N1 rocket in the 1960s and 70s. SpaceX re­cently launched the Fal­con Heavy, the most pow­er­ful rocket in op­er­a­tion to­day, but it doesn’t quite hold a can­dle to the Saturn V. There are new gi­ant launch ve­hi­cles in de­vel­op­ment in the US though, no­tably NASA's Space Launch Sys­tem (SLS) and SpaceX’s Big Fal­con Rocket (BFR). Both have in­au­gu­ral launch dates planned in the early 2020s, mean­ing that China might be a lit­tle late to the party, but its de­signs are no less am­bi­tious.

Ac­cord­ing to the China Acad­emy of Launch Ve­hi­cle Tech­nol­ogy (CALT), there is a plan in the works to use the Long March 9 as part of a fu­ture crewed lu­nar mis­sion. The rocket would be used to launch the lan­der and equip­ment nec­es­sary for the lu­nar ex­cur­sion, while the crew would launch sep­a­rately in a next-gen­er­a­tion space­craft be­ing devel­oped on the smaller Long March 5B. The two would ren­dezvous in Earth or­bit, from which the astronauts – known as taiko­nauts in China – would make their way to the lu­nar sur­face.

China is still in the very early stages of devel­op­ing this rocket, which has not yet been given of­fi­cial ap­proval from the govern­ment. They have re­cently tested out a large-thrust solid rocket mo­tor, but the even­tual en­gines for this rocket – billed as hav­ing 500-met­ric-ton-thrust of kerosene-liq­uid-oxy­gen and 220-met­ric-ton-thrust of liq­uid-hy­dro­gen en­gines – are still be­ing ironed out. Later this year they may test a pro­to­type of the large en­gine, fu­elled by kerosene, built by the coun­try’s Acad­emy of Aerospace Propul­sion Tech­nol­ogy

“The project in­di­cates that China is set on be­com­ing a ma­jor space power, ca­pa­ble of match­ing the US or Rus­sia” An­drew Jones

Sci­en­tists mon­i­tor the dock­ing of Tian­gong-1 and Shen­zhou 8 space­craft in 2011

Can China suc­ceed in send­ing hu­mans back to the Moon, or even Mars?

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