AmericaSpace has published the results of a study of Chinese rocket development by Charles Vick, a noted expert on the Russian and Chinese space programs who works for GlobalSecurity.org, using Chinese language sources.
Of note are the developing concepts for a super heavy launch vehicle designated as the CZ9 or Long March 9, capable of taking Chinese astronauts to the moon and points beyond.
Two concepts have emerged for the super heavy, "Saturn V class" launcher.
The details of China's proposed super heavy launcher were recently revealed by Liang Xiaohong, the Communist Party Chief at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), China's largest rocket contractor, according to AmericaSpace. The Long March 9 will have 11.46 million pounds of thrust, 4 million more than the Saturn V that took Americans to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This would make the Long March 9 capable of sending Chinese astronauts to the moon, Mars, or other deep space destinations.
Differences in the two super heavy launcher concepts
There are some distinct differences in the two Chinese super heavy launcher concepts, according to AmericaSpace. One, for example, would use four solid strap-on boosters and five first stage liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen rocket engines. The other would use four kerosene/liquid oxygen strap on boosters and four kerosene/liquid oxygen first stage rocket engines. Both are capable of sending a payload of about 133 metric tons to low Earth orbit. If approved, the Long March 9 is scheduled for service in the 2020-25 time frame.
Comparable to the American Space Launch System
NASA is developing its own super heavy launcher, currently dubbed the Space Launch System. According to a NASA fact sheet on the SLS, a version of the rocket capable of taking 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit will be used to launch two missions, one in 2017, the other no later than 2021. The 2017 mission will be unmanned, taking an Orion spacecraft around the moon and hence back to Earth for a splashdown landing. The second mission will take a crew of American astronauts on a lunar orbital mission.
A later configuration of the SLS, capable of taking 120 metric tons to low Earth orbit, will be used for deep space exploration missions, to the moon, asteroids, and eventually Mars.
Chinese lunar ambitions
The Chinese have made no secret of their ambition to land their country's astronauts on the lunar surface, as reported a year ago in the Washington Post. A recent piece in Foreign Policy suggests that China's lunar ambitions constitutes a national security challenge to the United States. Han Zhu, a researcher for the Equinox Institute in Shanghai, China suggests that this view is overly paranoid in a piece in Global Times.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.