China is working on a new generation of heavy-lift rocket designed to take its taikonauts to the moon and beyond. The Long March 9, as it is informally known, would dwarf SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. The launch vehicle should be capable of sending 50 metric tons of people and cargo to the moon as China gears up for lunar missions in the early 2030s.
The next step to building Long March 9 is to complete a demonstrator rocket engine, what China is calling a prototype, according to Aviation Week, which could be completed by the end of this year. The test rocket engine is designed to burn kerosene to put out 480 metric tons of thrust, and a large turbopump for the engine has reportedly already been built by the engineering firm developing the rocket engine, the Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology (AAPT). Additional second- and third-stage engines for the rocket, thought to be designed to burn hydrogen fuel, are also under development.
Long March 9 is China’s biggest and most ambitious rocket program to date. A senior official in the Chinese space industry told Aviation Week that the total thrust at liftoff for Long March 9 should be between 3,500 and 4,000 metric tons, compared to 3,400 metric tons of thrust for the Saturn V rocket that took NASA astronauts to the moon. China’s largest rocket currently in service, the Long March 5, is capable of placing 25,000 kg in LEO. The specifications for Long March 9 call for a rocket with a LEO payload capacity of 140,000 kg or 140 metric tons, almost a sixfold increase in lifting capacity over Long March 5.
For comparison, Saturn V also had a lifting capability of 140 metric tons to LEO. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket can place 63 tons in LEO. The aerospace company is building a much larger heavy-lift rocket, however, called BFR, which is planned to have a capacity of 136 metric tons to LEO, making it almost as capable as Long March 9 and Saturn V (although BFR is designed to return and land.)
China’s lunar exploration ambitions have been building up to a crewed moon landing for some time now. In 2007, a Long March 3A rocket placed the Chang’e-1 probe in lunar orbit, where it remained until 2009. In 2013, Chang’e-3 landed on the surface of the moon with the Yutu rover, or “Jade Rabbit.” Chang’e-5 will be an eight ton spacecraft designed to land on the surface of the moon, collect six pounds of moon rocks, and return them to Earth. The Long March 9 could be used to send Chinese taikonauts to the moon, a mission in the preliminary planning stage, as well as unmanned probes to Mars that will return to Earth with samples of the martian soil.
Long March 9 is being developed by the China Aerospace and Technology Corporation, or CASC. CASC is wholly owned by the Chinese government and is subordinate to the People’s Liberation Army General Armaments Department. Its rival, the China Aerospace and Industry Corporation, is also owned by the PLA and is currently developing a new reusable space plane.
The Long March series of rockets is named after Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party’s famous trek to safety during the Chinese Civil War. Long March 9 is a work in progress, and the design continues to update and change, but the end goal is a rocket to match Saturn V and take China to the moon.