China switches heavy-lift Long March 9 from expendable to reusable

China has abandoned its original plans to build its Long March 9 heavy lift rocket — intended to be comparable to NASA’s SLS — as an expendable rocket with side boosters and instead design it with a reusable first stage.

A new model of a Long March 9 rocket featuring grid fins and no side boosters recently went on display at the ongoing Zhuhai Airshow in southern China, prompting speculation that the long-standing plan of an expendable rocket had been dropped.

Liu Bing, director of the general design department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), later confirmed the new direction in an interview with China Central Television 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 transfer orbit (LTO), or 35 tons to Mars transfer orbit. The rocket is scheduled to be ready for test flight around 2030.

The design however has not been finalized.

It appears that China has been watching NASA’s attempts to launch SLS, and decided copying that rocket is likely a mistake. So instead, they have decided to copy Falcon 9 instead, though make Long March 9 a much bigger rocket.

All of this however is really nothing more than engineering by PowerPoint. Nothing so far really exists, and any plans for a rocket whose first test launch is eight years away are plans that no one should take very seriously.

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.

China commits to building its own SLS

The new colonial movement: China yesterday officially announced that it has approved construction of a heavy-lift rocket, dubbed Long March 9, that would by 2030 be able to put 140 tons into orbit.

The rocket is planned to have a lift capacity of 140 metric tons, with the capability of sending 50 or more tons into lunar orbit. It would be an immense vehicle, with a 10-meter diameter core and 5-meter side boosters. China would also like to eventually make the rocket, or at least part of it, reusable.

China is also developing another large rocket more comparable to the Falcon Heavy, though this other rocket has no name and information about it is more scarce.

Both projects indicate the long term commitment of the Chinese government to its space program. They also indicate that the present-day international competition to get into space is fueling far more development than the last forty years of international cooperation.

Whether these giant government rockets from China will be practical and efficient is an unanswered question. Just building something to compete is not the same thing as actually competing. The rockets have to be affordable, with the ability to launch frequently to make in-space exploration possible. If not, they will nothing more than big photo ops for incompetent politicians, kind of like SLS is for the U.S.

China reveals details of its planned heavy-lift and reuseable rockets

The new colonial movement: At a conference in late May a senior designer for China’s space program revealed details of their planned heavy-lift rocket, called the Long March 9 and comparable to SLS, as well as their first reusable rocket, the Long March 8.

The Long March 9 will be a Saturn 5-class super-heavy-lift rocket comparable in capacity to the Space Launch System currently being developed under NASA.

According to Long, the Long March 9 will be capable of lifting 140 metric tons to low Earth orbit, 50 tons to Earth-Moon transfer orbit, and 44 tons to Earth-Mars transfer orbit. The 93-meter-high Long March 9 is expected to have a launch mass of over 4,000 metric tons, producing close to 6,000 tons of thrust.

…Long explained in the lecture that the Long March 8 would be CALT’s first rocket to attempt first stage reusability, which will launch for the first time in 2021.

As previously reported, the Long March 8 is based on the existing Long March rockets, using a core very similar to that of the 3.35-meter-diameter Long March 7, a new-generation medium-lift rocket that had its maiden flight in 2016, with the second stage to be based on the 3-meter-diameter liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen second stage of the older Long March 3A. The rocket will also use two solid propellant boosters, likely based on the Long March 11.

Long stated that both the first stage and boosters will attempt vertical landing.

At this moment we must take China’s future space plans somewhat seriously. The upper management of their government is packed with former space program managers, all of whom are likely to view space development favorably. They have also done a good job either stealing our ideas and technology and adapting it, or building their own. And they have a somewhat robust economy, much of which has been privatized, that is generating a lot of cash for their government.

We must also remember that though the Chinese are signatories to the Outer Space Treaty, and will not publicly claim any territory they eventually possess on the Moon, Mars, or asteroids, they are likely to privately ignore that treaty and make it very clear to everyone that any territory they possess is theirs, and theirs alone. I also expect them to devise ways to expand that definition of possession to make it as extensive as possible.

The problem we have in competing with them is that our government seems more focused on creating pork instead of affordable and useful rockets. SLS’s design is cumbersome, expensive, and inefficient. It can’t fly often enough to accomplish much. And though private options that are more efficient and practical are now being built, the federal government seems very uninterested in buying them.

A Chinese SLS super rocket?

The competition heats up: According to a report in a Chinese newspaper today, China is developing preliminary designs for a new rocket that would be the most powerful ever built.

According to an earlier report by China News Service, Liang Xiaohong, deputy head of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, disclosed that the Long March-9 is planned to have a maximum payload of 130 tons and its first launch will take place around 2028.

Liang urged the government to include the Long March-9’s development in its space agenda as soon as possible so that China’s rocket technologies will not lag behind those of other space powers.

Whether this rocket every gets built is highly doubtful. The article seems to mostly be both a public relations response to the U.S.’s test flight on Friday of Orion as well as an example of a government agency lobbying for a bigger budget. (This lobbying happens even in communist China.)

Nonetheless, we should not dismiss the possibility lightly. As competition causes the cost of building all rockets to drop, it will be more affordable to build bigger rockets. By the next decade building a heavy lift rocket might finally be affordable.