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China to debut powerful next-generation Long March 5 launcher Thursday

Long March 5 rocket being rolled out to the launch pad at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Oct. 28, 2016.

Long March 5 rocket being rolled out to the launch pad at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Oct. 28, 2016. Photo Credit: 9ifly.cn

China plans to introduce its new next-generation heavy-lift Long March 5 booster on Thursday, Nov. 3. It is expected to be a workhorse for the country’s space program. The launcher’s maiden flight will be carried out from Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

Long March 5 is China’s most powerful launch vehicle with comparable capabilities to Arianespace’s Ariane 5 and United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Delta IV Heavy boosters. The rocket will be used for a wide spectrum of space missions, including launching commercial satellites, space station modules, as well as deep space probes.

The original plan envisioned six different variants of the Long March 5 rocket (from A to E) produced by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). However, there are currently only two versions of this launcher under development – “B” and “E”. The rocket in its most powerful “basic” configuration (known as “E”) is designed for geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) missions, while the “B” variant will be used to send payloads into a low-Earth orbit (LEO).

The basic version has a launch mass of 956 tons (867 metric tons) and is 187 feet (57 meters) tall. It is capable of delivering up to 28 tons (25 metric tons) of payload into LEO and up to 15 tons (14 metric tons) into GTO.

This variant has two stages that will use various propellants. The core stage, which is 108 feet (33 meters) long and 16.4 feet (5 meters) in diameter, will use two liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2) powered YF-77 engines, whereas the four strap-on boosters – 88.5 feet (27 meters) tall and 11 feet (3.35 meters) wide – will utilize two LOX and kerosene powered YF-100 engines each. With a length of 37.7 feet (11.5 meters) and a diameter of 16.4 feet (5 meters), the second stage is fitted with two LOX and LH2 powered YF-75D engines.

Long March 5 rollout, 2016-10-28

Long March 5 rollout on Oct. 28, 2016. Photo Credit: 9ifly.cn

Additionally, the Long March 5 in its standard configuration can fly with an optional upper stage called Yuanzheng-2 (YZ-2 for short). This stage is 17 feet (5.2 meters) in diameter and is designed to deliver spacecraft directly into a targeted orbit, at different altitudes and on different orbital planes, without the need for them to use their own propulsion.

The smaller Long March 5B variant is 176 feet (53.6 meters) tall and weighs some 923 tons (837 metric tons). It also uses a quadruplet of strap-on boosters, but only one core stage. This version is designed to send up to 25.3 tons (23 metric tons) of payload into LEO.

The other four proposed variants of the Long March 5 rocket, apparently, have been canceled; the Chinese media are not offering any updates on their development, but the rockets were much lighter versions. For example, the smallest configuration – CZ-5-200 – without any strap-on boosters would have weighed only 90 tons (82 metric tons) and would have carried a maximum of 1.65 tons (1.5 metric tons) of payload into LEO.

Thursday’s first flight of the Long March 5 will feature the rocket in its basic variant. The launcher will carry the Shijian-17 (meaning “practice” in Chinese) satellite – a technology demonstrator that will test electric propulsion. China has not disclosed, so far, any details about this experimental satellite, but it is believed that it will be inserted into GTO to complete a demonstration of ion propulsion for station keeping.

While no detailed information about the flight profile and timeline is currently available, the rocket’s parameters indicate that the maiden flight of the Long March 5 will probably see the launch vehicle flying for slightly more than 20 minutes to deliver its payload into GTO. The four boosters will power the rocket for about three minutes after liftoff before separating from the core stage – which will continue to burn until about nine minutes into the flight. Next, the second stage will assume control over the mission, firing its two YF-75D engines for approximately 11 minutes.

The debut flight of the Long March 5 was initially scheduled for late 2014, but it was delayed for two years. The next launch date was set for September 2016; however, it was postponed one more time to Nov. 3.

The initial tests of the Long March 5 booster commenced last year in September and lasted for more than four months. These tests, which were carried out at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, were necessary to check the compatibility of the rocket with ground facilities at the center. The final field tests were concluded in February 2016. On Oct. 28, the rocket was rolled out to the launch pad.

The Long March 5 rocket is planned to be employed for orbital launches on a regular basis, starting in 2017. The Tianhe-1 core module of China’s future space station, as well as the Chang’e-4 and Chang’e-5 lunar spacecraft, is among the many missions scheduled for launch atop this booster.

The Long March 5, along with Long March 6 and 7, is expected to replace the country’s aging family of overexploited Long March 2 (CZ-2), CZ-3, and CZ-4 launchers. The Long March 6 debuted in September 2015, while the Long March 7 was launched into space for the first time in June 2016.

Thursday’s launch will mark the 238th flight of the Long March rocket and the 16th orbital mission conducted by China this year. The country plans one more mission in November when it will send its Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT) into space atop a Long March 2D booster from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. However, the exact date of this launch has yet to be announced.

Long March 5 rollout, 2016-10-28

Long March 5 rollout on Oct. 28, 2016. Photo Credit: 9ifly.cn

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Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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