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