China is abandoning plans for an SLS-like rocket in favor of a reusable booster
When China began to get serious about sending its own astronauts to the moon in the middle of the last decade, the country’s senior rocket scientists began planning a large booster to do the job.
In 2016, the country’s state-owned rocket manufacturer, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, began designing the Long March 9 rocket. It looked more or less like the big heavy lifter that NASA was designing at the time, the Space Launch System. Like NASA’s large rocket, the Long March 9 had a core and boosters and was intended to be fully expendable.
There were some key differences, particularly in the propellant—the Long March 9 would use kerosene, instead of liquid hydrogen—but the general idea was the same. China would build a single-use, super-heavy lift rocket to launch its astronauts to the moon. The country has set a goal to fly a rocket by 2030.
But in recent years, China has begun to develop these plans, particularly as SpaceX demonstrated the reusability of kerosene-powered first stages and delved deep into development of its reusable Starship rocket. In various presentations, Chinese officials have discussed the possibility of incorporating reusable elements into the Long March 9 design.
Now, according to Space News, China made that direction official. The publication cited an interview Liu Bing, director of the general design department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, gave to China Central Television this week. He confirmed that plans for a fully expendable Long March 9 have been abandoned.
Instead, the current design has lattice fins on the first stage and no side boosters. 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 yet to be resolved.
One of those design decisions will likely involve propulsion. China recently implemented hot-fire test of a very powerful kerosene-fueled rocket engine, the YF-130. This engine is among the most powerful liquid fuel engines ever built, with 1 million pounds of thrust. It was considered the engine of choice for the Long March 9.
But this engine may not be suitable for reuse, as the Falcon 9 rocket re-fires only a subset of its nine engines during re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. For this reason, Long March 9’s reusable design may use clusters of smaller liquid-fuel engines—probably based on methane as a propellant, like the Starship.
What this means for the YF-100 engine is unclear. What seems certain, however, is that China is serious about its ambitions to land men on the moon and that whatever approach it chooses to take will reflect 21st century technology.
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