Chinese Long March 5B Launches Next-Gen Crew Vehicle

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In a crucial step forward for China’s human and robotic spaceflight programs, a Long March 5B booster conducted its maiden flight on Tuesday carrying a prototype of the nation’s next-generation crewed spacecraft.

China’s most powerful rocket lifted off at 1000 GMT (6 p.m. local time) from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. Chinese media have reported the launch from the nation’s southern spaceport was successful.

Long March 5B’s maiden flight paves the way for a series of firsts over the next year, including the launch of an orbiter and rover to Mars, a lunar sample return mission, and the core of a permanent space station.

The new six-seat crew spacecraft will eventually replace the three-seat Shenzhou vehicle currently in use. The larger spaceship will be used in Earth orbit and for lunar missions.

Long March 5B is capable of launching approximately 25,000 kg (55,116 lb) of payload into low Earth orbit. This is roughly the equivalent of the payload capacity of United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The booster’s core stage is powered by two liquid-fuel YF-77 engines. Four liquid-fuel strap-on boosters each powered by two YF-100 engines are attached to the core stage.

Long March 5B lacks the upper stage used on the Long March 5 variant. The additional stage is used to send spacecraft to geosynchronous Earth orbit and on lunar and planetary missions.

Long March 5’s first flight in November 2016 was successful. However, a second launch failed in July 2017 due to a flaw in a first-stage turbo pump. The booster made a successful return to flight on Dec. 27, 2019.

The successful launch on Tuesday opens the way for a number of important missions.

In July, a Long March 5 will launch the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and a small surface rover. Long March 5 will launch the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission at the end of the year.

A Long March 5B will launch the core Tianhe module of China’s first permanent space station during the second quarter of 2021.

A Long March 5B will orbit the station’s Wentian scientific module later next year. The booster will launch the station’s Mengtian module in 2022.

Other Long March 5 launches scheduled for 2024 include:

  • Chang’e-6 lunar sample return — Long March 5
  • Xun Tian space telescope — Long March 5B
  • Solar Polar Orbit Telescope (SPORT) — Long March 5.