China’s Long March 5 is China’s most powerful rocket, capable of carrying about 14 metric tons of weight in geostationary orbit. It was successfully launched first in November of 2016, though it did develop an issue with its first stage engines that became apparent during its second flight in July of 2017. After an investigation determined the cause of the failure, work on a third Long March 5 was completed.
Developers of the Long March 5 hope to use the rocket for numerous purposes, including the launch of a space station module and an eventual mission to Mars. The success of current missions and launches may determine the timeline for those projects. Representatives from China’s space agency have indicated that they plan to be on Mars by 2020. They hope that the Long March 5 can help get them and the required cargo to the Red Planet.
The rocket sees its third flight in November of 2018. Its payload this time includes an experimental telecommunications satellite called Shijian-20, or Practice-20. This satellite was designed to boost China’s communications satellites capacity. In addition, this launch is also meant to test out laser communications. Weighing in at over seven metric tons, it is the largest satellites sent into orbit. If this satellite functions as expected, it could support communication speeds of up to one terabit per second, which is a huge increase from its current levels of 20 Gbps.
If the upcoming launch is successful, officials hope to use the rocket a fourth time for a lunar mission in 2019. The aim of this lunar mission is to collect samples of regolith in Oceanus Procellarum. In addition, Long March 5’s achievements are expected to lead to the further development and eventual debut of the Long March 5B. The China Manned Space Engineering Office made an announcement late last week about this modified version of the Long March 5. The goal is for it to launch a reusable version of the Shenzhou spacecraft, which is capable of deep space travel.
China has an ambitious few years planned for their space program. In 2018, they are planning over 40 launches, which is nearly twice the number scheduled in 2016. This is in addition to their 2019 lunar exploration and research mission. They are also hoping to launch an interplanetary mission, with an orbiter, lander, and rover set to be sent to Mars in 2020.