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China rethinking its proposed heavy lift rocket to make it a Starship clone

Long March 9, now a Starship clone

Chinese rocket designers appear to be rethinking the proposed design of the Long March 9 heavy lift rocket that China is building, switching from an expendable clone of NASA’s SLS to a reusable clone of SpaceX’s Starship/Superheavy.

The original design had called for three expendable stages and four strap-on expendable boosters using kerosene fuel, and was targeting a 2030 launch. The new design is two reusable stages, with the first having 26 engines fueled by methane, and would launch by 2035.

The image to the right is a screen capture from a presentation given by a long time rocket designer in China, viewable here cued to this point. Note the two large rockets on the right. The smaller is a two stage version, while the larger is a three stage version. Both look remarkably like Starship/Superheavy.

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  • pzatchok

    Why am I not surprised.

    I hope they can make improvements on the system so we can steal them back.

  • Robert Pratt

    I wonder how many SpaceX employees are already under China influence or outright espionage agents.

  • Ray Van Dune

    “Chinese rocket designers appear to be rethinking the proposed design…”?!

    More like reselecting the object of industrial espionage. I know Elon is smart, but I hope he’s also devious enough to circulate some false leads!

  • Jeremy, Alabama

    I remember Musk saying something like the following

    – it is not worth patenting any ideas, because first you have to file them for anyone to read, and litigation is pointless and takes for ever
    – that the only way to keep winning is to keep innovating so fast that within a few months what got stolen isnt worth anything.
    – it is 10x harder to build a rocket factory than to build a rocket, so the rocket plan is only 10% of what you need.

    I kind of understand what he means. If someone stole the Falcon 9 plans and software, they’d have the keys to something on the verge of obsolescence. If they stole the Starship plans, they’d have a developmental prototype that has not flown in a year, and you still dont have the launch pad or the factory.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Well put, Jeremy!

  • Curious about the symbol prior to ‘10.6m’ (assume diameter). Is that the Mandarin symbol for ‘diameter’? (Spoiler: it isn’t). Looked it up on the Jimmy Wales site, and the symbol doesn’t quite match any standard iteration. Anyone?

  • Andi

    It’s close to the Greek letter phi, which according to Wilkipedia, can indeed be used to represent diameter:

    “The diameter symbol in engineering, ⌀, is often erroneously referred to as “phi”, and the diameter symbol is sometimes erroneously typeset as Φ. This symbol is used to indicate the diameter of a circular section; for example, “⌀14″ means the diameter of the circle is 14 units. ”

  • Edward

    There isn’t any indication that China is copying SpaceX in any way other than starting with the general shape, size, fuel, and reusability-concept of the Starship/Superheavy design. They may have to solve many of the details on their own; it saddens me that they do not seem to be trying to improve on Starship but only to copy it. It is a bit like The Soviet Buran, which failed to start from requirements but started instead from the shape and size of the U.S. Space Shuttle (which was designed based upon a terrible set of requirements); once again, a copy rather than an improvement. The Chinese seem to still be more in the “me too” mode rather than the going-one-step-better mode, as they did when they landed a rover on the far side of the Moon.

    If they plan to reuse the second stage of their three-stage version then I would be interested in how they plan to reenter it.

    At the moment it is in the same “Power Point” stage as Starship was in, back in 2017, but the article reports that it won’t be operational until 2035. This suggests that the Chinese are not copying SpaceX’s rapid development system. However, the article also says that the two stage version could have its first flight in 2026, which seems pretty rapid to me, unless they meant the expendable version, which would be a five-year development to first test flight, this being somewhat rapid (better than New Glenn and Vulcan, but not by much).

    Blair Ivey asked: “Curious about the symbol prior to ‘10.6m’ (assume diameter). Is that the Mandarin symbol for ‘diameter’?

    I agree with Andi. It may not be Mandarin, but it is probably being used to mean “diameter.” I’m not sure what it is the diameter of, because the screen captured image gives only a “10m” for the rocket. If they are giving two different sizes on their “Power Point” presentation then maybe the rocket is not as well defined as they want us to believe.

  • Andi

    It’s interesting that the last line of that screenshot translates to something like “But compared with America’s SLS, there are a lot of differences with (our) rocket” Not exactly sure what he’s referring to, but it’s interesting that he had to point that out.

  • Andi: If you can understand Chinese, I would be very interested in what you can glean from the full video. The post includes a link to it. If you can spare the time to watch and provide some comments, that would enormously appreciated.

  • Jeff Wright

    They may try a mixed system.

    Reusable methalox first stage. Simpler SLS-type hydrolox upper stage for NTR assembly. No landing legs or tiles. Wet workshop….maybe like a very stripped down lunar Starship. That would be simplest.

  • Andi

    Robert, I’d be glad to do what I can. I’m not much on technical vocabulary, but I’ll see what I can do.

  • Andi: Thank you for whatever you can do. Note that because this presentation includes viewgraphs with lots of text, it might help you learn some of that technical vocabulary.

  • pawn

    Elon has read his Kipling:

    They copied all they could follow
    but they couldn’t copy my mind
    so I left them sweating and stealing
    a year and a half behind.


    (a favorite of mine)

  • Concerned

    Those Chicom knockoffs look more like the New Glenn and New Armstrong paper designs. I say copy away, and get Bezos to help them.

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