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China scraps plans for an SLS-like missile in favor of a reusable booster

China scraps plans for an SLS-like missile in favor of a reusable booster

This is a rendering of an earlier version of the Long March 9 missile, with a consumable design and side-mounted boosters.
Zoom / This is a rendering of an earlier version of the Long March 9 missile, with a consumable design and side-mounted boosters.

Adrian Mann / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

When China began taking serious action about sending its astronauts to the Moon in the middle of the last decade, the country’s top rocket scientists began planning a big booster to do the job.

In 2016, the state-owned missile development company, the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, began designing the “Long March 9” missile. It looked a bit like the big heavy crane that NASA was designing at the time, the Space Launch System. Like NASA’s big rocket, the Long March 9 had a basic stage and boosters and was supposed to be fully expendable.

There were some key differences, particularly in the propellant – Long March 9 would use kerosene, rather than liquid hydrogen – but the general idea was the same. China will build a single-use ultra-heavy lift rocket to launch its astronauts to the moon. The country has set a target of launching the missile by 2030.

But in recent years, China has begun to develop these plans, especially since SpaceX has demonstrated the possibility of reusing kerosene-fueled first stages and has deepened the development of the fully reusable spacecraft rocket. At various presentations, Chinese officials discussed the possibility of incorporating reusable elements into the design of the Long March 9.

Currently, According to Space NewsChina has made this trend official. The publication cited an interview that Liu Bing, director of the general design department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, gave to China Central Television this week. He confirmed that Long March 9 expendable plans had been completely abandoned.

Instead, the current design features first-stage mesh fins and no side boosters. The goal is to develop a large, reusable first stage rocket capable of delivering 150 metric tons to low Earth orbit and up to 50 metric tons to the moon, Liu said. Liu said the design process remains smooth, with many technical challenges yet to be addressed.

One of these design decisions will likely involve thrust. China recently performed Hot fire test of a very powerful kerosene-powered rocket engine, the YF-130. This engine is one of the most powerful liquid-fuel engines ever, with a thrust of one million pounds. It 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 fires only a subset of its nine engines during re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. For this reason, the reusable Long March 9 design could use groups of smaller liquid-fueled engines—perhaps based on methane as a propellant, such as the 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 landing on the Moon, and that any approach it agrees on will reflect 21st century technology.

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