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Because of redesign work required on its Long March 5 rocket, China revealed today that the launch of the first module, Tianhe, of their planned space station, has now been set for 2020.
Launch of Tianhe had earlier been planned for 2018, but the launch failure in July last year of the Long March 5 rocket, a heavy-lift launch vehicle required to loft the 20-tonne space station modules to low Earth orbit, meant a delayed schedule.
The next attempt at a Long March 5 launch, which will send a large telecommunications satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit, will take place from Wenchang in the second half of 2018. If that is successful, it will pave the way for a test launch of the low Earth orbit variant of the rocket, the Long March 5B, around June 2019. The follow-up flight will then launch the Tianhe module, now set to take place in 2020.
During the Soviet era, it was not unusual for the Russians to suddenly invent a new variant of a rocket or space capsule in order to provide cover for their need to redesign or fix problems. That is what I think is happening here. Until the still unexplained launch failure of Long March 5 in July 2017, I had never heard of a Long March 5B. It was the Long March 5 that was going to do all the heavy lifting.
Now we suddenly have a Long March 5B, a “low Earth orbit variant of the rocket.” I increasingly suspect that the problems with Long March 5 were so serious that they have caused a complete redesign. It was able to get its first payload into orbit, but not its second. The failure was not accompanied by any catastrophic event, which suggested, based also on later reports, that the rocket’s first stage engines simply under-performed significantly. I wonder now if what China is doing now is making that weak rocket the 5B, while they redesign the 5 so it can lift the big payloads required.
We also cannot trust them entirely with the naming they use of their rocket for each launch. The next Long March 5 launch in 2018 might actually be the 5B variant, without the name, and the so-called first test of the 5B in June 2019 might actually be the first test of the full powered 5.
Wheels within wheels!