China is moving on with the expansion of its already broad rocket fleet. The country has recently announced that it has started the assembly of a next-generation Long March 5 launch vehicle. This heavy-lift booster, that will be used for a variety of space missions, is currently scheduled to conduct its maiden flight in September 2016.
The Long March 5 rocket is now in the final stage of preparations to be ready for its debut. After finishing the assembly process, the rocket will undergo a series of tests and checks ahead of its rollout to the launch pad in September.
"After the assembly is finished in the first half of this year, it will take a little more than a month to test it to ensure that the product is in good shape,” said Yang Hujun, vice chief engineer of the rocket.
The initial tests of the new booster were commenced last year in September and lasted more than four months. These tests, carried out at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hainan province, were necessary to check the compatibility of the rocket with the ground facilities at the center. In February 2016 the final field tests were concluded.
The debut flight of the Long March 5 booster was initially scheduled for late 2014, but was delayed two years. The rocket’s liftoff from Wenchang is currently planned for September, however the exact date as well as the payload is yet to be determined.
There will be six versions of the Long March 5 vehicle developed by China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). The tallest variant will be the biggest and the most powerful Chinese launcher to date. With a launch mass of 867 metric tons, this version will be 198 feet (60.5 m) tall and will be capable of delivering up to 25 metric tons of payload into a low-Earth orbit (LEO) and up to 14 metric tons to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
The three-stage rocket will use various propellants. The core stage will be powered by two LOX/LH2 YF-77 engines, while four strap-on boosters will utilize two LOX/Kerosene YF-100 engines each. The upper stage will be fitted with two LOX/LH2 YF-75D engines.
Long March 5 is designed to launch commercial satellites, space station modules as well as deep space probes. Among many missions planned to be lifted off atop this booster, is the Chang'e-5 lunar spacecraft, scheduled for launch in 2017. One of the most ambitious projects that will employ this rocket is delivering into orbit the country’s indigenous space station, which China plans to built around 2020. The rocket will also be used to send manned missions into space.
China has set an ambitious plan of conducting a total of about 150 Long March rocket launches over the next five years. This year only, the country aims to carry out more than 20 orbital flights, including a crewed mission, launching two navigation satellites, an orbiting space laboratory and a satellite designed for high-definition Earth observation.