China Is Building One Of The World’s Largest Space Launch Vehicles

The Long March goes on

Long March 5 Prototype

In the CALT Tianjin Factory, the first LM-5 rocket takes shape. The diameter of the core, seen here with CALT personnel, is 5 meters. Once operational, the LM-5 will carry up to 25 tons into orbit.

While NASA’s Orion test flight dominated space news last week, CCTV reported on the next big step for China’s space program. In a Tianjin rocket factory, the first Long March/Changzheng 5 (LM-5) space rocket is undergoing final testing and assembly.

LM-5 Booster

This 3.35 meter wide booster uses a YF-120 liquid oxygen/kerosene engine capable of producing 120 tons of thrust. The LM-5 is planned to carry up to four of these boosters, adding on more boosters would further boost the LM-5’s already impressive payload.

Built by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), the rocket will be one of the world’s largest and most powerful space launch vehicles. Its largest version, the CZ-5-504, is 62 meters tall, has a total weight of 800 tons, and can carry 25 tons of payload to low-Earth orbit. China’s first LM-5 will be shipped by sea to the new space launch center in Wenchang, Hainan Island, for a 2015 launch.

Wenchang Space Launch Center

The Wenchang Space Launch Center is located in China’s southernmost island province, Hainan, as launching closer to the Equator boosts the performance of space launch rockets. In addition to launching the LM-5 starting in 2015, Wenchang will also support the 130ton payload Long March 9 rocket by 2030.

The launch system is powerful enough to launch a lunar or Mars mission spacecraft weighing up to 14 tons. In addition to the three-stage, five-meter-diameter, dual-engine primary core, the LM-5 is assisted by up to four 3.35-meter-diameter, twin-engine boosters. Its total thrust at sea level is 1,080 tons, making the LM-5 comparable to foreign systems like the U.S. Delta IV Heavy and European Ariane 5.

Tiangong 3 Space Station

The Tiangong 3 space station will be completed no later than 2022, just as the International Space Station enters into retirement. The Tiangong 3’s three 20+ ton modules will be boosted into space by the LM-5 heavy space rocket.

Once the LM-5 starts flying, its most high-profile mission will be launching modules for the planned Chinese space station Tiangong (around 2020), as well as future taikonaut Shenzhou missions. The LM-5 will also be used to launch larger Chinese communications and intelligence satellites into geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) to continuously cover a specific terrestrial location, as well as provide large-diameter optical spy satellites. Both CALT and the Tianjin city government have stated that the LM-5 can carry “large sized remote sensing satellites,” which certainly seems plausible. (The U.S. Delta IV Heavy is believed to carry the KH-11 series of imaging satellites, which may weigh about 15 tons.) Larger imaging satellites would give Chinese intelligence analysts highly accurate images of foreign warships and aircraft test sites.

Shenlong

The current Shenlong, a robotic space plane, is small enough to be carried by operational space rockets such as the Long March 2 and Long March 4. The LM-5 would double the payload of current Chinese rockets, which would allow for larger versions of the Shenlong to operate in space, on extended terrestrial and space surveillance missions, as well as possibly future anti-satellite and land attack missions.

The LM-5 will also take on foreign customers; to date, China has launched satellites for nations such as Brazil, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey. Given that the Tianjin factory is capable of building six to eight LM-5 lunch systems a year, China clearly anticipates a large civilian, military, and foreign demand for its big rocket. A parting thought: the Chinese unmanned spaceplane, Shenlong, weighs between five and 10 tons. The LM-5 could carry much larger Shenlong variants, which could be fitted with advanced sensors, as well as less friendly equipment for anti-satellite and space attack missions in wartime.

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