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March 04, 2013

China's Big Rocket Delayed

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

China's Long March 5 rocket, initially scheduled to launch next year, is encountering developmental delays and won't be rolling out until 2015.

"Our plan has encountered some difficulties," said Liang Xiaohong, deputy head of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology in an interview published by

Long March 5 is a challenge due to its larger size. With a diameter of five meters, the rocket is substantially larger than the 3.35 meter diameter used in the existing Long March family. A larger rocket is required to put up heavier satellites, most likely high-resolution imaging platforms for military and civilian use and large space station components.

"But when an object is bigger, its technical risks and functional defects are also magnified," Liang told the publication.

Building such large components has apparently challenged China's aerospace manufacturers, who have never built something this big before and lack the necessary equipment and technology to maintain it. Chinese officials are pushing companies to improve their ability of "mechanical machining."

However, the Long March 7 is still on track for a 2014 debut.  Long March 7 has a takeoff thrust of 700 metric tons as compared to the 1,000 tons for Long March 5, and will be used to put cargo freighters into orbit.  It also may be used to launch manned spacecraft into orbit as well.

Liang also discussed the development of the solid fueled Long March 11 and a heavy-lift rocket to send a crew to the Moon.  Long March 11 would be a simply "cost-efficient" rocket that could be rapidly setup to put satellite into orbit on short notice "for emergency launches in case of accidents" such as natural disasters. First flight for Long March 11 is expected before 2016.

To put people on the moon, Liang said China will need to develop a big rocket with a takeoff thrust of 3,000 tons, a diameter of at least eight meters and be able to send a 100 metric ton payload into low earth orbit. Officials hope to have the heavy left project approved in the nation's 2011-2015 five year plan.

China's desire for a heavy lift vehicle is due in part to match capabilities developed by Russia and the United States to reach the moon back in the 1960s.   The U.S. continues to invest money on its heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), but some space advocates are challenging the need and expense for SLS in lieu of using multiple,  smaller launches to build and conduct deep space projects.

Edited by Jamie Epstein

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