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China Readies Long March 5 for First Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Oct-2016
Updated: 29-Oct-2016 01:11 PM

China's new Long March 5 rocket was transported to its launch pad yesterday in preparation for its inaugural launch according to China's official Xinhua news agency.  Xinhua did not specify the launch date, saying only it would be in "early November."

Long March 5 will be the largest of China's rockets, slightly smaller in capability than the U.S. Delta IV Heavy.  It will be able to place 25 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit (LEO) compared to Delta IV's 28.4 MT.

This is the fourth new Chinese rocket to make its debut in the past 13 months and the second to utilize China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

China tested two very small new rockets last fall, the liquid-fueled Long March 6 and solid-fueled Long March 11. The first launch from Wenchang was of the new medium-class Long March 7 in June. 

Long March 5, 6 and 7 are all part of China's plan to replace its older launch vehicles (Long March 2, 3 and 4) with those that use more environmentally-friendly propellants -- liquid oxygen (LOX)/kerosene instead of hydrazine.

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 around 2022.  China currently has two astronauts aboard its small (8.6 MT) Tiangong-2 space station, but they will remain there for only 30 days.  China has sent mixed signals as to whether a second crew will occupy Tiangong-2, but it is not intended for long-term occupancy.  

While the 60 MT space station planned for 2022 is still small compared to the 400 MT International Space Station (ISS), under current plans, the ISS partners (the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries) will discontinue ISS operations in 2024.  That could mean China's will become the only earth orbiting space station, although some or all of the ISS partners could decide to continue ISS operations thereafter.  NASA also is requesting input from the U.S. private sector to determine if a commercial space station is feasible as an ISS follow-on.

China also plans to use Long March 5 for robotic space exploration missions. They include a sample return mission to the Moon (Chang'e 5) next year and an orbiter/lander/rover to Mars in 2020.  China launched a lunar sample return test spacecraft in 2014 that demonstrated returning a capsule to Earth from lunar distance, and a lander/rover (Chang'e-3/Yutu) to the Moon's surface in 2013.  The 2020 Mars mission will be China's first to that planet on its own, although a Chinese orbiter was aboard Russia's failed Phobos-Grunt mission in 2012.

Long March 5 will open many new opportunities for China's space program in earth orbit and beyond.  It is roughly double the capability of its largest existing rockets, the Long March 3B (12 MT to LEO) and Long March 7 (13.5 MT to LEO).


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