China has taken a great leap forward in advancing its space ambitions with the successful Saturday night debut of its all new, kerosene/liquid oxygen fueled Long March 7 rocket. The 13.5 ton to LEO EELV class rocket, roughly comparable to the Atlas V and Falcon 9, is intended to be the workhorse booster for supporting that nation’s next generation crewed spaceflight elements, responsible for launching crew and supply vehicles, as well as a host of other missions, a number of which will be military in nature.
On this occasion, it was not only the booster which was new. The flight took place from what is now China’s fourth complex, the Wenchang satellite launch center located on Hainan Island off China’s southern coast. Accessible by sea rather than rail, and located at a more southerly latitude at 20 degrees N, the new launch center will be able to receive and process larger core boosters than the other three centers. The next in line is the Long March 5, is a 25,000 ton class rocket with LEO performance on par with the ULA Delta Heavy. A kerolox rocket based on the same technology as the 7, it is scheduled to make its inaugural flight later this year. China is also working on a much larger 10 meter diameter core super booster which is still some years off.
The nomenclature of China’s launch vehicle families, with the 7 being a smaller rocket than the 5, can be confusing, but the reason is a simple one. Numerical designations represent the order of development approval rather than weight class or actual first flight.
For Saturday’s mission, which was to LEO, the Long March 7 carried a number of experiments, but its chief payload was a sub-scale prototype of a new crew vessel which follows much closer to the SpaceX Dragon, or Apollo/Boeing CST-100 mold line than the more rounded Shenzhou capsules which are based on Russia’s Soyuz. It is a clear indication, that China is contemplating the sort of higher speed returns associated with lunar missions which are part of its long term plans.
While the new Long March 7 moves through its demonstration period, China will continue to count on its Long March 2F rockets to support it crewed program, which will see the new Tiangong-2 space station launch later this year.
On a domestic note, while China does lag behind the U.S., Europe, and even India in cryogenic rocket propulsion, the debut of a new family of cleaner, RP-1 based boosters and an ongoing program of LEO crew operations may raise questions as to the why the U.S. continues to adhere to a policy which prevents peaceful space cooperation between the two nations.