China could switch to a fully reusable super-heavy launcher in Starship’s wake

HELSINKI — China’s launch vehicle manufacturers appear to be designing a fully reusable version of the Long March 9 super-heavy rocket needed for future megaprojects.

The emergence of plans for new reusable methane-liquid oxygen launch vehicles to be ready by 2035 suggests that China is seeking major changes to its space transport plans.

The Chinese government last year approved further development of a super-heavy launch vehicle known as the Long March 9. The long-planned, replaceable launch vehicle is to be operational by 2030, in time for Chinese megaprojects, including the International Lunar Research Station.

The giant rocket will consist of three stages and four side boosters, with the first stage and boosters using a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen.

However, a new concept for a fully reusable two-stage launch vehicle has now been presented in a recent public lecture (visible here) by Long Lehao, an accomplished chief designer of the Long March rocket series.

The 10.6 meter diameter launcher’s first stage would be powered by 26 clustered methalox engines with a thrust of 200 tons. It would be able to carry 150 tons of payload to low Earth orbit, 65 tons to geosynchronous orbit, or 50 tons to a trans-lunar injection.

Long, a senior official who regularly presented updates on China’s space activities, revealed that the new launches should be ready by 2035 and will likely be developed in parallel with the replaceable version.

The largest variant, apparently including a third stage, would have a length of 110 meters and a take-off mass of 4,122 tons.

The concepts would be a dramatic departure from both the Long March 9 replaceable model and a version with a reusable first stage presented last year, with full reusability now a target. However, the frequent change in concepts also suggests that China’s plans are somewhat in flux.

The presentation, made in July, comes shortly before the first orbital test flights for SpaceX’s replaceable Space Launch System and fully reusable spacecraft.

Methane-Liquid Oxygen provides performance benefits and reduces soot and coking problems in terms of reusability. The plans follow the trend of SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance to switch to the fuel.

It also follows a smaller two-stage methane-liquid oxygen launcher concept, apparently based on SpaceX’s Starship, presented by Wang Xiaojun, president of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).

The apparent switch to methalox seems sudden. However, China’s propulsion institutes, under the state conglomerate China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), have been working for a long time on methane engines, making a change of plans somewhat feasible.

A smaller, five-meter-diameter reusable rocket presented by Long may be intended to replace some aging hypergolic rockets, as well as more recent kerosene-fired Long March rockets that have become operational in the past decade.

Chinese commercial launch companies Landspace and iSpace have been developing methane-liquid-oxygen launchers in recent years, possibly using a national military-civilian fusion strategy that facilitates the transfer of limited technologies.

Landspace will attempt its first launch on the methalox Zhuque-2 from the Jiuquan spaceport in the near future. Competitor iSpace is also preparing to perform hop tests with a methalox first-stage test item for its Hyperbola-2 reusable rocket in Jiuquan.

Long evolution of 9 March

Although different figures have been published, the original, replaceable Long March 9 is expected to be approximately 103 meters long, have a core with a diameter of 10 meters and have a mass at launch of 4,140 metric tons and can lift 140 tons to low orbit. to the earth or 50 tons to trans-moon injection.

Dual nozzle 500-ton thrust kerosene-liquid oxygen (YF-130) engines will power the first stage and boosters, 220-ton thrust liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen staged combustion cycle (YF-90) engines for the second stage, with significant on both already progress made. Vacuum-optimized hydrolox motors would power the third stage.

The reusable version of the first stage presented in 2021 would switch to a first stage with 16 clustered kerolox engines with 360 tons of thrust and no side boosters. Hydrolox engines with 120 tons of thrust would be used for the second and third stages.

The largest variant of the Long March 9 in Long’s new reading with the fully reusable concepts would have a diameter of 10.6 meters, a length of 110 meters and a take-off mass of 4,122 tons, matching the capabilities of the earlier plans.

A more economical, reusable version of the Long March 9 could be ready to support a proposed space-based solar power program in geostationary orbit.

China is also developing a three-stage heavy-lift rocket designed to send Chinese astronauts to the moon. A two-stage version for low Earth orbit could have its first flight in 2026.

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