As part of the long-term planning, Chinese missile officials have been talking for some time about a super-heavy lift rocket that will enable a human lunar program. For this rocket, dubbed the Long March 9, officials have generally quoted the 2030 timeframe for its first launch.
However, at the 2018 World Conference on Science Literacy this week, Li Guoping, an engineer with the China National Space Administration, said the country plans to launch the Long March 9 booster in 2028. This is because China successfully ramped up its launch frequency in 2018 — it should launch about three dozen orbital rockets this year, more than any other country. The message in the Chinese news service Xinhua did not specify why this larger rocket was now expected to launch two years earlier than previously announced.
A huge rocket
The Long March 9 is an extremely ambitious booster, measuring 10 meters in diameter, 90 meters in length and a proposed lift capacity of 140 tons to low Earth orbit. Those numbers match the Saturn V rocket that NASA designed and built in the 1960s to carry out the Apollo moon landing program. It would be roughly equivalent in capacity to SpaceX’s proposed Big Falcon Rocket, although there has been no report from China as to whether part of the Long March 9 could potentially be reused.
NASA is further developing its own large booster, the large Space Launch System rocket, which could make its maiden flight in 2020 or 2021. This version of the SLS rocket will have a launch capacity of up to 95 tons to low-level Orbiting Earth, according to a recent NASA update. Ultimately, the space agency plans to upgrade the SLS rocket to a Block 2 configuration with a more powerful second stage and advanced side boosters, and this rocket would have an estimated capacity of 130 tons to low Earth orbit. However, it seems unlikely that the Block 2 rocket would be launched before 2028.
This means that if SpaceX fails to secure funding for the Big Falcon Rocket and NASA continues at the slow pace of development of the SLS rocket, China could have the world’s most powerful rocket in a decade over a decade.
China reportedly wants to use the Long March 9 rocket for an ambitious Mars sample return mission, and that could be the payload for the vehicle’s maiden flight. However, given the size of the proposed missile, the overarching target seems likely to be taikonaut visits to the moon’s surface.
Chinese officials have previously said their long-term goal is a series of lunar surface missions beginning in the 2030 timeframe. This approach could be more attractive to some partners, such as the European Space Agency, than NASA’s plan to build a Deep Space Gateway in a distant orbit to build the moon instead of going straight to the surface.
By accelerating the development of the Long March 9 rocket, Chinese officials could provide other potential partners with a viable alternative to NASA’s plans sooner. As always with the Chinese space program, however, the most drastic decisions and planning happen out of the public eye, so there are few definitive answers.