Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Long March to a Chinese EELV

Last week, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) announced that its Long March 5 family of rockets will make its maiden flight in 2013. The Long March 5 family is roughly equivalent to America's Atlas V and Delta IV, or Russia's Angara family.

The proponents of the belief that China will beat the US to the moon generally don't address the long pole in the tent for a Chinese lunar mission: the launch vehicle. The current Long March 2 relies on the same hypergolic propulsion technologies as the old Titan II, and has similar performance to Soyuz (and the base variants of the EELV's.) In order to fly to the moon, China's propulsion technology will have to take "one giant leap" forward.

A new family of EELV-class rockets is important to China's future space ambitions, but it's still a long ways away from a manned lunar capability. While China hasn't made any comments in this direction, I would suspect that the first Long March 5, in 2013, will be similar in performance to the baseline Delta IV Medium or Atlas V 401. It took two years for the US to progress from the first baseline EELV flight to the first Heavy EELV flight, and I would suspect that the same would be true for China. So let's assume that, by 2015, China has a launcher that can put 25 metric tons in low earth orbit. That's still a far cry from a lunar-capable booster that can put 100+ metric tons in low earth orbit.

Even if China works all the bugs out of the new boosters by 2015, it's still an open question of how they will be used. The heaviest version of the Long March 5 could be used to launch space station modules, but it could also be used to launch two satellites to geosynchronous orbit. (Given the commercial viability of Chinese launchers, I think the latter is more likely.) The 3.35-meter version of the Long March 5 could replace the Long March 2F for manned Shenzhou launches, but there are no publicized plans to do so.

Long March 5 will be launched from Wenchang Space Center on Hainan Island. The choice of launch site is highly advantageous. It will have a sea port that will accept the barges which carry Long March 5 booster cores. It's close to the equator, which will allow for more payload to orbit. I would also suspect that it will allow for highly-inlined orbits by launching to the southeast (a launch to the southwest would carry the launch vehicle over Southeast Asia, so it looks unlikely.)

In short, the Long March 5 family of launchers is a major step forward for China's space program. However, it's unlikely that the Long March 5 program will enable manned lunar landings, and it's uncertain at this point what role (if any) it will play in China's manned space plans.