China's wildly ambitious future in space just got a big boost with the successful launch of its new heavy-lift rocket


Chinese officials breathed a big sigh of relief on Friday as Long March 5, the nation’s most powerful rocket, roared a communications satellite into space.

The rocket, which stands about 187 feet (57 meters) tall, suffered a major problem with a high-speed fuel pump in July 2017. The faulty pump caused the rocket to fail midflight – and delayed China’s ambitious plans to put a new space station in orbit around Earth, send a sample-return mission to the moon, and even begin exploring the surface of Mars.

But as Friday’s successful launch showed, Chinese engineers seem to have fixed the rocket’s critical flaws.

“After more than two years’ effort … the research and development team has overcome challenges in engine technology. [We] solved the problem,” Wang Yu, who commanded the mission, told China News Services, according to the South China Morning Post.

China’s big ticket to the solar system takes off

China mars global remote sensing and small rover hx 1 martian mission illustration rendering cas xinhuaChinese State Administration of Science/XinhuaAn illustration of China’s planned Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover mission, or HX-1.

China plans to build the Long March 5, or Changzheng 5, in a variety of configurations to achieve its ambitions in space.

The version of the Long March 5 that launched on Friday can heave payloads weighing up to 51,000 pounds (25 metric tons) into low-Earth orbit, or just a couple hundred miles above Earth. That’s half the payload capacity of SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rockets, which can haul about 140,000 pounds (64 metric tons) into orbit, but it’s plenty to secure China’s ambitious future in space over the next few decades.

Other versions will carry smaller payloads farther, such as 31,000 pounds (14 metric tons) to geosynchronous orbit – where a satellite can remain stationary above a point on Earth – and 18,000 pounds (8.2 metric tons) out to the moon.

This makes the Long March 5 capable of launching the planned Chinese Space Station, a lunar-sample-return mission, a Mars rover, and a space telescope.

“While these missions are valuable in terms of science, economic development and so on, they are also important to Chinese leadership in terms of international prestige & domestic support,” Andrew Jones, a correspondent for Space News, tweeted shortly before launch. “Another failure would be seen as embarrassing. The tension will be astronomical tomorrow.”

That is why the rocket mission’s success is all the more important to China and its future.

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