China scraps plans for SLS-like missile in favor of reusable booster
When China started getting serious about sending its astronauts to the moon in the middle of the past decade, the country’s senior rocket scientists began planning a major booster to do the job.
In 2016, the country’s state-owned rocket developer, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, began designing the “Long March 9” rocket. It more or less resembled the big heavy lifting device that NASA designed at the time, the Space Launch System. Like NASA’s large rocket, the Long March 9 had a nuclear stage and boosters and was intended to be completely replaceable.
There were some key differences, especially in propellants — the Long March 9 would use kerosene instead of liquid hydrogen — but the general idea was the same. China would build a super-heavy single-use rocket to launch its astronauts to the moon. The country has set a target to fly the rocket by 2030.
But in recent years, China has begun to develop these plans, mainly because SpaceX has demonstrated the reusability of kerosene-fired first stages and has gone deep into the development of its fully reusable Starship rocket. In several presentations, Chinese officials discussed the possibility of incorporating reusable elements into Long March 9’s design.
utilities, according to Space News, China has made that direction official. The publication quoted an interview that Liu Bing, director of the general design department of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, gave to China Central Television this week. He confirmed that plans for a fully replaceable Lange 9 March have been scrapped.
Instead, the current design has grid fins on the first stage and no side boosters. The goal, Liu said, is to develop a large rocket with a reusable first stage that can deliver 150 tons to low Earth orbit and up to 50 tons to the moon. Liu said the design process remains fluid, with several technical challenges yet to be addressed.
One of those design decisions likely involves propulsion. China recently performed a hot-fire test of a very powerful rocket engine powered by kerosene, the YF-130. This engine is one of the most powerful liquid fuel engines ever built, with a thrust of 1 million pounds. This was thought to be the engine of choice for the Long March 9.
But this engine may not be suitable for reuse, as the Falcon 9 rocket only re-ignites a subset of its nine engines during reentry through Earth’s atmosphere. For this reason, Long March 9’s reusable design could utilize clusters of smaller liquid fuel engines — possibly based on methane as a propellant, such as Starship.
What this means for the YF-100 engine is not clear. What seems certain, however, is that China is serious about its ambitions for a human moon landing and that whatever approach it takes will reflect 21st century technology.
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