Long March 9 China heavy space rocket
Capable of carrying an eye watering 140 tons to low earth orbit (or 50 tons on a lunar bound course), the Long March 9 will be the world's most powerful space launch rocket when it flies around 2030. It'll be the workhorse not just for Chinese lunar missions, but beyond to Mars and elsewhere. Chinese Internet
China Space Rocket Long March 5 Long March 9

Long March and Longer March

The LM-5, which will fly this year, can carry up to 25 tons in payload to low earth orbit. But the LM-9, nearly six times as large and twice as tall, can boost 140 tons, enough for a single launch to carry a multiple person lunar landing team.

Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin, deputy commander of the manned space program, announced that China would land a man on the moon in the next 15-20 years. Chinese authorities also announced their intention to launch a robotic Mars mission in 2020, complete with orbiter, lander and rover, along with a possible Martian soil sample return by 2030.

China moon landing CASC taikonaut

Assembly Required

While this CASC proposal suggests launching three LM-5 rockets and assembling their payloads in orbit to build a lunar spacecraft with transport capsule, lunar lander and fuel, it’ll be quicker to launch (2025-2030) compared to launching a lunar taikonaut mission on a single super heavy LM-9 Rocket

There are several key steps if China is going to make this happen. The official state newspaper, China Daily, noted that China would need a super heavy launch rocket capable of boosting at least 100 ton of payload into low earth orbit. In addition to China National Space Agency (CNSA) concepts exploring using three heavy Long March 5 rockets to launch pieces of a manned lunar mission for terrestrial orbital assembly, China is beginning development of the super heavy Long March 9 (LM-9) rocket. With a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) payload of 140 tons (50 tons for a trans lunar injection trajectory), the LM-9 is in the same weight class as the American Saturn V and Space Launch System. It’s envisioned to have three stages, with the first stage consisting of four booster rockets, a quadruple double engine core stage (each individual engine would have a thrust of 480 tons), all liquid fueled.

Long March 9 China heavy space rocket

A Handful of Nines

Here are three proposed Long March 9 variants, all sharing the same core stage, which can lift 50 tons to LEO by itself. CZ-9A can lift 100 tons with the addition of two boosters, while CZ-5B can launch 140 tons, with the help of four boosters. CZ-5B would slightly outperform the SLS Block II (130 tons LEO), which will also fly in the 2025-2030 timeframe.

The LM-9 is expected to have its first launch sometime in the 2025-2030 timeframe, likely from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hainan. Since the Chinese Academy of Launch Technology is already conducting preliminary research on the LM-9’s systems like engines, in order to meet the 2030-2035 timeframe for the manned lunar mission, the CNSA will need to commit large amounts of funding to meet that deadline (though given the large financial resources to the Chinese government, that should be feasible). Other areas of manned lunar technologies are already within China’s grasp, such as developing life support and space suit equipment, communication equipment and remotely operated systems. China could also use its planned Tiangong 3 space station as a facility for lunar taikonaut training in space, and a support station.

China Lunar Base

A Dream 30 Years in the Making

At the 2000 World Expo, the Chinese Pavilion included a diorama of two Chinese Taikonauts taking a joyride on the moon, three years before China first sent a man into space. Now thirty years afterwards, it looks like that dream is finally coming true.

As possibly the second nation to undertake a manned lunar mission, China would undoubtedly reap great prestige, in many ways staking its claim to a new position in a 21st century space race. Yet landing a man on the moon could also be the start of more practical gains that weren’t possible back when NASA first landed there. Using 21st century technologies like additive manufacturing, China could use its lunar taikonaut missions to jump start a Chinese moon base, both for scientific research, a support base for manned extraterrestrial missions to Mars and asteroids, as well as exploiting potential lunar resources like water (for space ship fuel) and Helium 3 (fusion power).

You may also be interested in:

Watch Out SpaceX: China’s Space Start Up Industry Takes Flight

China’s Answer to the Hubble Telescope

China Showcases Plan to Become the Leading Space Power

China’s Largest Ever Space Rocket Takes Another Big Step Forward

China’s Long March 5 Space Rocket Stretches Its Legs