China’s super-heavy-lift rocket will carry 100 tons to the moon

China’s proposed next-generation missile reached the final stages of feasibility studies this month. The proposed launcher, known as Long March-9, can send 100 tons to the moon and could be launched for the first time as early as 2030.

Announced in 2018, Long March-9 will play a key role in China’s long-term space ambitions. If everything goes as planned, the first payload is likely a Mars sample return mission, and it would support China’s lunar ambitions as well. Another suggested use for the super heavy lift vehicle is to build an experimental space-based solar power plant, although plans for this project are still very tentative.

Long March 9 is the China National Space Administration (CNSA) response to NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), at least in terms of payload capability, but cannot be used for crewed lunar missions like SLS. Instead, it appears that the Long March 9th will send infrastructure and supplies while people ride in another proposed vehicle, currently known only as the “921 missile”. It is still open whether both vehicles will be approved and developed in parallel.

It is also unclear whether the Lange March 9th will be reusable. If not, it could affect the missile’s longevity, as the CNSA hopes to make all of its launch vehicles reusable by 2035, if possible. The CNSA’s first attempt at a reusable first tier will be Long March 8th, which was first launched last December (in an expendable form).

The Long March-9 alongside other super heavy lift trucks. Photo credit: Thorenn, Wikipedia Commons.

The long March 9th is about to be approved by the state. According to Luan Enjie, former head of the China National Space Administration, it will then move into the next phase of development, where hardware will be manufactured and tested. “We are working to initiate research for the heavy-lift launch vehicle within the fourteenth five-year plan (2021-25),” he said.

When the Long March-9 is ready, it will go well beyond the capabilities of any current CNSA vehicle. It will be 93 meters high and have a 10 meter wide core stage. The first stage is supported by four massive side boosters that allow the rocket to launch 150-ton payloads into low-earth orbit (six times more than the current Long March-5 rocket).

China has made great efforts in recent years to become a competitor in space exploration. Due to political differences, there was almost no cooperation between the United States and China in space in the 21st century. But the CNSA has made progress on its own and is the third nation, after the Soviet Union and the United States, to independently send a human into space in 2003. In recent years she has also expanded her robotics programs, completing the first return of the lunar sample in over 40 years in 2020 and successful landing of two moon rovers. One of the rovers, Chang’e 4, was the first spacecraft to ever land on the other side of the moon and is still in service. The CNSA also launched a robotic mission to Mars called Tianwen-1 last year, which arrived in Mars orbit in February. Tianwen-1 carries a rover that will attempt to join NASA’s Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars in May or June this year.

The Chang’e 4 lander on the other side of the moon, captured by the Yutu-2 rover. Photo credit: Liu, J., Ren, X., Yan, W. et al., Wikipedia Commons; CNSA.

The next major undertaking of the CNSA until the first flight of Long March-9 in 2030 is to build a modular space station in low-earth orbit. The first modules should come onto the market in spring this year. The station will provide CNSA with long-term spaceflight experience and enable future crewed missions to the moon once the Long March 9 (and 921) rocket are ready to fly.

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