When China began seriously considering sending its astronauts to the moon in the middle of the last decade, the country’s leading rocket scientists began planning a big booster to do the job.
In 2016, the country’s state-owned rocket developer, China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, began designing the “Long March 9” rocket. It more or less resembled the heavy jumbo jet that NASA was designing at the time, the Space Launch System. Like NASA’s large rocket, the Long March 9 had a core stage and boosters and was intended to be fully expendable.
There were a few key differences, particularly in the thrusters – the Long March 9 would use kerosene instead of liquid hydrogen – but the general idea was the same. China is reportedly building a single-use, super-heavy rocket to launch its astronauts to the Moon. The country has set a goal of flying the rocket by 2030.
But in recent years, China has begun to evolve those plans, especially as SpaceX demonstrated the reuse of kerosene-fueled first stages and set about developing its fully reusable Starship rocket. In various presentations, Chinese officials discussed the possibility of incorporating reusable elements into the design of the Long March 9.
Now, according to Space News, China has formalized that direction. The publication cited an interview that Liu Bing, director of the General Design Department of the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, gave to China Central Television this week. He confirmed that plans for a long, fully expendable March 9 have been scrapped.
Instead, the current design features grid fins on the first stage and no side booster. The goal, Liu said, is to develop a large rocket with a reusable first stage capable of delivering 150 metric tons to low Earth orbit and up to 50 metric tons to the Moon. Liu said the design process remains fluid, with several technical challenges still to be overcome.
One of those design decisions will likely involve propulsion. China recently conducted a hot test of a very powerful kerosene-fueled rocket engine, the YF-130. This engine is one of the most powerful liquid fuel engines ever built, with a thrust of 1 million pounds. It was thought to be the engine of choice for the Long March 9.
But that engine may not be suitable for reuse, because the Falcon 9 rocket only re-ignites a subset of its nine engines upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. For this reason, the reusable Long March 9 design can use smaller liquid-fuel engine clusters, possibly based on methane as propellant, like Starship.
What this means for the YF-100 engine is unclear. However, what seems certain is that China is serious about its human lunar landing ambitions and that whatever approach it takes will reflect 21st century technology.
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