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China Launches Its Biggest Rocket Yet - Long March 5

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Nov-2016
Updated: 05-Nov-2016 12:43 PM

China conducted the first launch of its new Long March 5 rocket today.  At 25 metric tons (MT) to low Earth orbit (LEO), it has twice the capability of the largest existing Chinese rocket and is only slightly smaller than the largest U.S. rocket, Delta IV.  It opens many possibilities for China, which has identified large space stations and probes to the Moon and Mars among its nearer-term uses.

China announced on October 28 that the launch would take place in early November, but its English-language news services, Xinhua and CCTV, typically used by the Chinese government to herald headline-grabbing space events, provided virtually no new information in the interim.  Even a CCTV segment just hours before the launch (November 3, 12:46 Beijing Time; 12:46 am EDT) did not mention the launch date or time, again saying only it would be in November. 

Web- and Twitter-based sources who closely follow the Chinese space program kept the public apprised of the launch status, including Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI), who writes for gbtimes.com (@gbtimescom); Chris Bergin at NASASpaceflight.com (@nasaspaceflight); and two who do not identify themselves -- @cosmicpenguin and China Spaceflight @cnspaceflight (in Chinese).  About 1 minute before launch, CCTV finally began live coverage, which continued until the payload separated from the second stage.

Liftoff from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island was initially expected at 6:00 am ET (10:00 GMT; 18:00 local time at the launch site) based on Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) issued by the Chinese government to warn pilots to avoid the airspace.  Launch was briefly delayed twice due to technical issues, but ultimately came at 8:43 am ET (12:43 GMT; 20:43 local time).  [Editor's note:  several accounts have appeared about the causes of the delays based on Chinese sources.  SpacePolicyOnline.com cannot confirm them, but here are links to three for those who are interested.  The first is an account apparently from one of the launch crew translated into English by @cosmicpenguin and posted to NASASpaceFlight.com. The second (text) and third (audio) are in Chinese - we used Google Translate for the text copy -- and posted to Twitter by @cnspaceflight.  The gist is that the first delay was due to indications of a liquid oxygen leak and the second was related to a chill-down problem with the first stage engines.  Editor's note 2:  China's CCTV has now posted a YouTube video about the "nail-biting countdown."]


China's Long March 5 lifts off on inaugural flight from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, Hainan Island, China, November 3, 2016, 20:43 local time.  Photo Credit: China Xinhua News (@XHNews)

The payload is the Shijian-17 experimental satellite that is on its way to geostationary orbit.  Long March 5 delivered it to an elliptical geostationary transfer orbit. The spacecraft's on-board propulsion will take it the rest of the way (as is typical with such launches).

Until now, the most capable Chinese rockets have been the older Long March 3B (12 MT to LEO) and the brand new Long March 7 (13.5 MT to LEO), which made its first flight in June.

Delta IV Heavy is the most capable U.S. rocket in use today.  It can deliver 28.4 MT to LEO.  Long March 5 and Delta IV Heavy, though large by today's standards, are modest compared to the U.S. Saturn V developed for the Apollo program (118 MT to LEO) or the Space Launch System currently being developed by NASA in three versions (70 MT, 105 MT and 130 MT).  In addition, two U.S. private companies are developing or planning new heavy lift rockets: SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, 54 MT to LEO, which is close to its first flight; and Blue Origin's New Glenn, 70 MT to LEO, still in the planning phase.

Among the payloads China has announced for Long March 5 are space station modules that will be docked together in orbit to form a 60 MT space station by 2022 and robotic exploration missions. Those include a sample return mission to the Moon (Chang'e 5) next year and an orbiter/lander/rover to Mars in 2020.

 


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