China’s Long March 5 Rocket to Return to Flight in Busy Launch Year

Long March 5 on the launch pad. (Credit: China National Space Administration)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In recent weeks, Chinese officials have revealed more details about the investigation into the Long March 5 launch failure last year as well as their ambitious launch plans for this year, which include a landing on the far side of the moon.

Long March 5 will be returned to flight in the second half of 2018, according to Bao Weimin, head of the Science and Technology Committee of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Engineers have identified the cause of a launch failure that occurred last July and are working to verify it, he said.

Bao did not provide any additional information about the failure, which appeared to observers of the flight to have originated in the first stage. The accident occurred on the second flight of the heavy-lift booster, which successfully debuted in November 2016.

Engineers conducted a static firing of the booster’s YF-77 engine in February. Two of the motors power the core stage of Long March 5, which is capable of lifting up to 13 metric tons (14.3 tons) into low Earth orbit.

When it returns to flight, the Long March 5 will carry the Shijian-20 experimental communications satellite. The spacecraft will test out technologies for the development of next-generation, high-capacity broadband communications satellites.

The Shijian-18 satellite, which was designed to test these technologies, was lost in the Long March 5 failure last year. Both spacecraft are based on the large DongFangHong-5 (DFH-5) satellite bus.

Getting Long March 5 back in service is crucial to a number of projects. After the failure last year, the Chinese space agency was forced to postpone the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission that had been set to launch in November 2017. The mission has been rescheduled for 2019.

Artist’s conception of China’s Tianhe-1 space station. (Credit: China Manned Space Engineering)

Plans to launch the Tianhe core of a permanently occupied space station also have been postponed until 2020. The facility, which will be similar in size to the Soviet Mir space station, will fly aboard a Long March 5 variant that will have a test launch in 2019.

China is also planning to launch a mission to Mars using the booster in 2020.

The Long March 5 flight is one of 36 launches the Chinese government is planning for 2018, according to Li Hong, president of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). Additional launches by private entrepreneurial companies could push China’s total above 40.

China launched 16 times last year. The country’s record for any calendar year is 22 launches in 2016.

Li said scheduled launches for 2018 include:

  • Long March 3: 14 times
  • Long March 2: 6 times
  • Long March 11: 4 times from land with additional flights from a modified ocean freighter

The Long March 11 sea flights are designed to serve customers that need to place satellites in equatorial or low-inclination orbits. The booster is capable of lofting payloads weighing up to 700 kg (1,543 lb) into low Earth orbit or 350 kg (771.6 lb.) into sun-synchronous orbit.

The Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover on the moon.

China’s most ambitious mission of the year is Chang’e-4, which will land a rover on the far side of the moon. The mission will kick off in May or June with the launch of a relay satellite aboard a Long March 4C booster from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The spacecraft will provide communications from the second Earth-moon Lagrange point.

Launched along with the relay satellite will be a pair of microsats that will conduct low frequency radio astronomy and space-based interferometry in deep space. The spacecraft each weigh about 45 kg (99 lb) and are 50 x 50 x 40 cm (19.7 x 19.7 x 15.7 in) in size.

In December, a Long March 3B rocket will launch the Chang’e-4 lander and rover from Xichang. The spacecraft will touch down within the South Pole–Aitken basin.

Another key objective of this year for China is to launch additional Beidou navigation satellites. Four of the spacecraft were launched earlier this year.

Li also revealed that the first flight of the Long March 8 booster has been pushed back to 2020. Officials had earlier hoped to conduct the launch in 2018 or 2019.

Long March 8 will be capable of boosting up to 4.5 metric tons (4.96 tons) into SSO. The Long March 4 booster can launch only 2.8 metric tons (3.1 tons) into that orbit.

Preliminary work is also being done on Long March 9, which will be capable of lifting approximately 140 metric tons (154.3 tons) into LEO. The booster, which would be tested by 2030, would be used for human flights to the moon and sample returns from Mars.



  • Spaceman__Spliff

    Thanks for the great summary. Sounds like quite a year for the Chinese. And although they are not “our team”, it will be interesting to see what they can accomplish at least from a moon exploration / science perspective.

  • BJW

    Long March 5 should loft 25 metric tons, not 13, yes? It’s the Long March 7 which does 13.