China has developed blueprints for what would be the world’s largest rocket, capable of taking astronauts to the Moon, a member of the country's top consultative political body has said.
Liang Xiaohong, former vice president of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), told state news agency Xinhua the super heavy lift rocket, known as Long March 9, will allow China to attempt an ambitious Mars sample return as part of its exploration plans for the Red Planet, and also to put people on the Moon.
A crewed lunar mission is an objective that China has not stated publicly, but is believed to be working towards and slowly mastering the techniques and technologies required.
Mr Liang says the Long March 9 will be nearly 10 metres in diameter, over 100 metres tall, and have a payload capacity of around 130 tonnes, rivalling the US’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
The 3,000 tonne Long March 9 is still at the very early stages of development, and expected to make its maiden flight around 2030.
Liang, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), was speaking ahead of the opening of China’s annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing.
The sessions will see the adoption of the country's new Five Year Plan, which will include objectives for its state-run aerospace industry.
Development of such a rocket would help secure China's position in terms of space exploration and technology, and provide capabilities for both large projects in Low Earth Orbit and interplanetary missions.
Yet despite ambitious plans, China is far from leading in this area. Nasa, which took astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s with the massive Saturn V rocket, expects to launch the first variant of its SLS rocket before the end of 2018.
SpaceX, an American commercial aerospace corporation led by Elon Musk which is shaking up the industry with its reusable rocket technology, is understood to be working on super heavy launch vehicles as part of plans to send people to Mars.
Developing a super heavy lift rocket will require a number of technological breakthroughs, including improved liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen engines and the ability to manufacture much larger diameter rocket stages.
The tremendous force and stress placed on launch vehicles means that any slight defects during the complex manufacturing and welding processes could be catastrophic.
Above: A ring manufactured in Tianjin, North China, in preparation for the core stage of a Long March 9 rocket (CASC).
Liang stressed that developing such a rocket would have a number of benefits for China in spheres outside of space industry.
He claimed making breakthroughs in required cutting-edge technologies will greatly boost Chinese infrastructure and development, bringing new materials, new technologies, new devices and new equipment.
Overall it will assist, “China’s manufacturing transformation and upgrading as well as innovation and development, and help China become a major space power and realize its goals in “Made in China 2025”, Liang said, tying the project to the stated national initiative to comprehensively upgrade Chinese industry.
New rockets in 2016
In the more immediate future, China this year will perform the inaugural launches of two next-generation rockets that will greatly increase China’s lift capacity and space capabilities.
In September the Long March 5, the country’s largest rocket, will lift off from a new launch facility on the island province of Hainan.
It will used for lofting the modules for China’s space station, with the core module set for orbiting in 2018, and to be completed by around 2022.
Before that, it will launch the Chang’e-5 mission to return samples from the Moon in 2017.
The Long March 7 will launch for the first time in June, and will eventually become the workhorse launch vehicle for China’s space program, replacing and greatly improving on the Long March 3B rocket.
Both the Long March 5 and 7 are cryogenic liquid oxygen/kerosene and liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen fuelled rockets, and will eventually replace the current Long March 2-4 rocket families, which use highly toxic hydrazine fuel.
Professor Huang Jun at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics says the rockets mark a technological breakthrough for the country, claiming they will improve reliability and launch preparation time and reduce launch costs.
110 Long Marches through 2020
CALT, which is developing the Long March 9, is a subsidiary to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the main contractor for the Chinese space program.
Over China’s 13th Five Year Plan, set to be formally adopted by China's National People’s Congress, the country's top legislative body, this month.
The 13th Five Year Plan will run from 2016-2020, during which time CASC will be involved in the launch of 110 Long March rockets and the related missions.
China launched 200 Long March rockets between April 1970 and December 2014, and now rapidly increasing its launch rate.