China’s Space Plans Hinge On December Launch

Long March 5

China’s space agency recently successfully executed a show test of its Mars spacecraft on a 140-meter tower in the outskirts of Beijing and is currently aiming for its launch in the summer of 2020. Despite the successful test, however, another type of analysis in December faces an equally essential mission component.

The country is set to launch the Long March 5 /Chang Zheng 5/ from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre on Hainan Island, resuming the use of the country’s biggest rocket. The craft, 56 meters long and will lift off with a total weight of 867,000 kilograms, is one of the most massive active spacecraft in the world, brushing shoulders with the European Ariane 5 and the US Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The country plans to use the rocket to ferry the Chang’e 5, a trial return mission to the moon, and its first autonomous interplanetary mission to Mars in 2020. For the deployment of China’s proposed space station’s modules into low earth orbit, the Long March 5, a similar but smaller rocket, will be used. Its future space missions, however, will be significantly affected if the Long March 5 experiences anomalies during its return to space.

In its inaugural mission at the end of 2016, the Long March 5 had an unstable launch. The craft’s second launch was also plagued with problems, as equipment on a first-stage engine broke off the rocket. This event has delayed the release of Chang’e 5 which was scheduled to take place in November 2017.

Now that its first stage liquid-hydrogen and liquid-oxygen engines are upgraded and adequately checked, the Long March 5 is well prepared for takeoff. Shijian 20, a large prototype communications satellite, is scheduled to take off aboard the rocket’s first flight in mid to late December. The satellite is expected to increase China’s capacity for high-throughput satellite coverage once it is set in orbit 35,786 kilometers above the Earth. Additionally, the Shijian 20 will transport new domestic ion thrusters and laser communication devices to space.

In spite of the payload’s importance, China, during the December launch, will focus on clearing the rocket for higher prospects in the future. Typically, preparing a Long March 5 rocket, including the assembly and all the tests, lasts approximately two months. The country is hence forced to spread out its missions over a longer time.

If Long March 5 launch is successful, the next experiment will be on the Long March 5B, which will carry an uncrewed model of China’s new-crewed capsule, designed for deep space travel and would allow the country to start planning the launch of the Chinese Space Station modules.

This post was originally published on Market Research Sheets

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Sarah Lacy

Sarah Lacy

Sarah Lacy is a reporter covering Amazon. She previously covered tech and transportation, and she broke stories on Uber's finances, self-driving car program, and cultural crisis. Before that, she covered cybersecurity in finance. Sarah's work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Politico, and the Houston Chronicle.
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