If you want to catch up with NASA, you’d better be bringing something immensely powerful to the game—like a mega-rocket that can blast 140 tons into space.
China’s Long March-9 is being developed by the country’s Academy of Aerospace Propulsion technology (AAPT) and chasing current spaceflight heavyweights at warp speed. The ESA’s Ariane 5 flies up to 20 tons into space, and the SpaceX Falcon Heavy can lift up to 64 (with or without Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on board). Even NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System, which should be taking off in 2020, falls just behind at 130 tons.
Long March-9 should be capable of flying such a massive payload into orbit 1,200 miles above Earth’s surface, at least if you believe Chinese Academy of Engineering senior official Long Lehao. He recently revealed to Xinhua News that its core stage is 10 meters in diameter and will be powered by four boosters that are each 5 meters in diameter. It’s even after NASA’s goals: China wants to get humans moonwalking again, building a zero-G power plant and venturing into the endless expanse of deep space.
"China's aerospace industry is making efforts to develop low-cost vehicles that can enter space rapidly to support future large-scale space exploration and promote a commercial space industry," Long told China Daily.
This is what happens when you fuel your space program with billions of dollars to catch up to the US and Russia wtih your most ambitious rocket ever.
There is already one area in which China has already gone further than NASA or Roscosmos. To get Chinese boots on the moon first, there was an open call for the public to contribute to future spaceflight innovation by submitting potential designs for vehicles that astronauts will fly to the moon and land in the lunar dust. You don’t really see NASA asking for that.
The reason that American rockets haven’t been doing that much heavy lifting since the Saturn V launch system (which actually had a lift capability of 140 tons) is that a weight limit was mandated after the end of the Apollo program in 1975. You’re probably wondering how we ever got the ISS into space with that limit, and the answer is that it was assembled module by module.
Long March-9 will soon enter the prototype phase, which consists of a kerosene-burning test engine that is supposed to produce 529 tons of thrust that has already had its huge turbopump built by the AAPT. The rocket’s second and third stages are currently in development and will be designed to burn hydrogen fuel.
SLS might have a 130-pound threshold now, but with the most payload mass, volume capability and energy than any launch vehicle on the planet (for now) plus the potential to launch Orion, tons of cargo and astronauts to the moon in just one mission, that could change in the foreseeable future.
“To fill America’s future needs for deep space missions, SLS will evolve into increasingly more powerful configurations,” says the NASA website.
The space race is on.