In the middle of the twenty-teens, China started looking to send their astronauts to the moon. By 2016, China's state-owned developer, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, began work on an addition to their Long March family of rockets, called Long March 9. In what must be a truly "cosmic coincidence," the rocket bears a resemblance to NASA's Space Launch System or SLS with the (not yet developed) Exploration Upper Stage. It has a single large core stage and add-on solid rocket boosters. The major differences relate to using technologies they have more confidence in, such as using kerosene instead of liquid hydrogen (don't get me started), but the big picture was the same. China would use a one-time use, disposable rocket for each moon mission. Their first mission was planned to land on the moon by 2030.
Original design for the Long March 9. Getty Images.
A funny thing happened on the way to Long March 9: Falcon 9. SpaceX has
demonstrated the reusability of kerosene-fueled first stages and gotten deep
into developing its fully reusable Starship rocket. In various presentations,
Chinese officials have discussed the possibility of incorporating reusable
elements into the Long March 9 design.
Now, according to Space News, China has made that direction official. The publication cited an interview that Liu Bing, director of the general design department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, gave to China Central Television this week. He confirmed that plans for a fully expendable Long March 9 have been dropped.
Rather, the current design features grid fins on the first stage and no side boosters. The goal, Liu said, is to develop a large rocket with a reusable first stage capable of delivering 150 metric tons to low Earth orbit and up to 50 metric tons to the Moon. Liu said the design process remains fluid, with several technical challenges yet to address.
Gee. Grid fins and no strap-on SRBs. That doesn't sound as much
like SLS anymore.
Eric Berger at Ars Technica (top link) points out an interesting
implication. The story begins that the
South China Morning Post
(SCMP) reported on November 6th that the China Aerospace Science and
Technology Corporation had successfully tested an engine destined for the Long
March 9. It's called the YF-130, and it's among the most powerful
kerosene/LOX engines ever developed at 1 million pounds of thrust. The
SCMP noted the engine can enable China to fly to Mars, but any
vehicle/engine combination that can fly to the moon can reach
Mars, it's just a matter of the payload size it can bring there.
Eric notes that the Falcon 9 uses just one of its considerably smaller Merlin
1D engines for landing and 3 of 9 for the entry burn higher up in the
atmosphere. The one engine used for landing is still too powerful for
the Falcon 9 to hover so the onboard computer needs to adjust the amount of
fuel to burn in order to reach the deck of the drone ship when vertical
velocity reaches zero. An empty F9 booster figures to weigh much less
than an empty LM9, and that YF-130 is providing much more thrust than and the
Merlin 1D (165,000 lbs). Does the thrust:weight ratio work out that the
LM9 can land while throttling down?
Or maybe the LM9 will need to go to large numbers of smaller engines, like the Starship/Super Heavy?
Just something to keep an ear open for.
It looks at the moment as though (now) Hurricane Nicole will be at its closest to us around 4AM tomorrow. There's always the chance we'll lose power and be offline, but we didn't during Ian and this is looking to be in the same strength category as Ian, which was a tropical storm here.