China has taken a major step forward in advancing its space ambitions with the maiden flight of its Long March 5 heavy lift booster. Liftoff of the all liquid fueled rocket took place from China’s Wenchang Satellite Launch Center located on Hainan Island. As with most Chinese launches, and any that carry the potential of national embarrassment, media coverage was kept to an absolute minimum, with little specific public notification given and television coverage beginning only one minute before a launch that ultimately took place at 8:43 PM local time, 8:43 AM ET.
China might have been better served to invite journalists from around the world and offer wall to wall local coverage however, as after only two delays, its new high tech heavy lift rocket took off on what appeared to be a very successful maiden voyage, ultimately deploying a payload described as a satellite designed to test electrical propulsion.
China’s numerical numbering system for its various launch vehicle families can be a bit confusing, as they are based on the date a particular design was approved relative to others, and not on the overall size or capability. For example, the smaller Long March 7 series made its debut earlier this year. In this case, the Long March 5 plays second fiddle to no-one, and actually brings the nation on par with the largest U.S. booster currently in service, the United Launch Alliance Delta Heavy.
Like the Delta, China’s new booster features an all-cryogenic core stage powered by liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen main engines. Flanking the first stage are four liquid fueled boosters running on kerosene and liquid oxygen, each of which is powered by a pair of main engines using a staged combustion cycle. This configuration, intended for Low Earth Orbit, is officially designated as the CZ-5B, whereas another version of the booster, equipped with a cryogenic second stage, and intended for Geostationary Transfer Orbit or deep space missions, is referred to as the CZ-5.
The overall performance of the booster, which will be used for lofting segments of a new, modular space station, as well as lunar science and deep space missions, is impressive, with numbers cited as 23,000 kg to LEO (CZ-5B) and 13,000 kg to GTO (CZ-5).