China is "hopeful" that the next generation Long March 5 rocket will make its first flight in 2014, according to the state news agency Xinghua. The announcement may fuel some discussion later this week during NASA's Capitol Hill budget hearings on March 7.
During the annual session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee on March 3, deputy head of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology Liang Xiaohong said construction of the first hydrogen tank for the Long March 5 and been successful. Production of the rocket's key structures, including major fuel tanks and a five meter diameter fairing, will be completed "within" this year.
Long March 5 will more than triple China's launch capacity to orbit, with a maximum low-earth orbit (LEO) payload capacity of 25 metric tons and a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) capability of 14 metric tons. The rocket will stand 60 meters high, with two to three modular core stages, plus strap-on boosters. A variety of engines and fuels is expected to be available in six different configurations, according to Wikipedia, including kerosene/liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen versions.
China is developing a heavy lift rocket to support its plans to build a manned space station and for launching its next-generation unmanned lunar missions. When it goes into service, Long March 5 will be in the same class as the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy.
Currently, China's primary launch vehicle more large payloads is the Long March 2F. The Long March 2F is a man-rated two stage vehicle capable of putting up to 8.4 metric tons into low earth orbit. Since first launched in 1999, the Long March 2F has had seven successful launches, including three manned Shenzhou missions and the launch of the Tiangong 1 space laboratory. Later this year, China plans to launch a three person Shenzhou 9 mission to demonstrate manned docking and conduct experiments in space.
Chinese progress towards a heavy lift launcher capable of supporting the construction of a space station and manned missions to the moon is likely to provide fodder to a "Fear China" theme among politicians and some within NASA to secure more money and support for the space agency. Since the United States no longer has the capability to launch astronauts into low earth orbit -- much less reach the moon -- China's steady progress in space has been used as a rallying cry for advocates.
Edited by Rich Steeves