China scraps Long March 9 one-off missile plan in favor of reusable version

China scraps Long March 9 one-off missile plan in favor of reusable version

HELSINKI — Missile designers with China’s premier launch vehicle institute have scrapped plans for a replaceable super-heavy launch vehicle in favor of a design with a reusable first stage.

A new model of a Long March 9 rocket with grid fins and no side boosters was recently showcased at the ongoing Zhuhai Airshow in southern China, sparking speculation that the long-standing plan of a replaceable rocket had been scrapped.

Liu Bing, director of the general design department of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), later confirmed the new direction in an interview with China Central Television on Nov. 7.

The new, current plan for the rocket will be a three-stage, 108-meter-high, 10-meter-diameter, and 4,180-metric-ton rocket capable of delivering 150 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), 50 tons to lunar orbit ( LTO), or 35 tons to Mars orbit. The rocket should be ready for a test flight around 2030.

A reusable version of the Long March 9 shown at the Zhuhai in 2022. Credit: OurSpace

However, Liu told CCTV that the design is not yet finalized and will likely change as the team chooses the optimal path as it works towards the goal of continually breaking technological challenges and increasing launch power.

The Long March 9 missile project has been under development at CALT for several years. The original plan was to build a replaceable rocket that could deliver 100 tons or more to LEO.

The original design would have made the Long March 9 analogous to NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the first of which, for the Artemis 1 mission, is currently on the way at launch complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center with Tropical Storm Nicole approaching Florida.

In recent years, senior CALT official Long Lehao ​​has presented new concepts for the Long March 9, apparently in response to advances in reusability demonstrated by SpaceX.

The presentations suggested, unofficially, a move away from the replaceable version with boosters, shown at Zhuhai Airshow last yearto separate reusable kerosene (sometimes referred to as version 21 and version 22) and fired on methane concepts. The methane version could be ready by 2035, according to Long.

The new model maintains the old schedule for a test flight, suggesting a switch from large 500-ton twin-nozzle thrust engines to clusters of lower thrust, single-nozzle engines mentioned in Long’s presentations to ensure recovery and facilitate reuse.

At the same time, the Sixth Academy of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which also owns CALT, recently executed the first full-system hot fire test of the YF-130 kerosene liquid oxygen engine with 500 tons of thrust, which is thought to be developed to power the replaceable Long March 9. How the engine will be used in the future remains to be seen.

Also on display in Zhuhai was China’s new-generation crew launch vehicle, sometimes referred to as the Long March 5 Dengyue (“moon landing”) or Long March 5G. The display indicates a shift of the angled nose cones on the side cores of earlier models.

The rocket will be capable of sending 27 metric tons in trans-lunar injection. A pair of the new rockets will be able to send a manned spacecraft and separately a landing stack into orbit around the moon. This would allow two astronauts to land on the moon.

Liu said the rocket is almost ready for the prototype phase and would have a test flight in 2027. It was not clear whether this referred to the variant with one stick for launches of a new-generation crew spacecraft to LEO — previously scheduled for an initial launch in 2026 — or the full, three-core, three-stage version for lunar missions.

HELMET recently performed 300-second mission cycle testing of the vacuum-optimized YF-100M engines for the rocket’s second stage.

Senior Chinese space officials, including Long Lehao ​​and Ye Peijian, stated last year that the country will be able to implement this idea for the mission with two launches and a short stay on the moon. before 2030.

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