China Debuts New Long March 6 Rocket, Long March 5 Readied for Tests
China's Long March 6 rocket debuted last night Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) with a launch from the Taiyuan Space Launch Center south of Beijing carrying 20 microsatellites. The Long March 6, or Chang Zheng-6 (CZ-6), is designed for small payloads of up to one ton to low Earth orbit. China also reported that the much larger Long March 5 is being readied for tests.
Like Russia's Angara family, which is intended eventually to replace the majority of Russia's Soviet-era rockets still in use today, China is developing a new generation of rockets with varying capabilities to replace its older fleet. The new rockets retain the Long March designation: Long March 5, Long March 6, and Long March 7. The heavy-lift Long March 5 and medium-lift Long March 7 will fly from a new Chinese launch site on Hainan Island, the Wenchang Space Launch Center.
China's most recent 5-year space plan, issued in 2011, said the Long March 5 would be able to launch 25 tons to low Earth orbit or 14 tons to geostationary transfer orbit; Long March 6, a "high-speed response launch vehicle," would launch no less than 1 ton to sun-synchronous orbit at 700 kilometers; and Long March 7 would launch 5.5 tons to that orbit.
This launch, of the Long March 6, occurred this morning at 7:01 am China Standard Time (Saturday evening, 7:01 pm EDT) and was delayed a day because of a technical problem. China's official news agency Xinhua heralded the new rocket as China's first of use "fuel free of toxicity and pollution" -- liquid oxygen and kerosene. It said the rocket primarily will be used for launching microsatellites and the 20 satellites on this launch were for "space tests." No other details were provided. The Long March 6 is roughly in the same class as some versions of the U.S. Minotaur, Russia's Rockot and Europe's Vega.
China has said for several years that it plans to launch a robotic lunar sample return mission, Chang'e-5, using the heavy-lift Long March 5. Xinhua also said today that a Long March 5 was just shipped to Wenchang for a rehearsal of such a launch and the launch itself is planned "around 2017." It will be preceded by a test launch of the Long March 5 in 2016, Xinhua added.
The most recent U.S. Department of Defense report on China's military capabilities said construction of the Wenchang launch center was completed in 2014 and the first launches are expected "no later than 2016."
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