China enters heavy rocket race with planned 100-tonne launch vehicle

Kristin Huang
·2-min read

China is developing a super heavy-lift rocket that will be significantly more powerful than the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and capable of reaching the moon, according to the head of its lunar exploration programme.

In an interview with state broadcaster CCTV, Luan Enjie said feasibility studies for the 100-tonne launch vehicle had been completed and the project was now at the follow-up research stage.

Luan Enjie, chief commander of China’s lunar exploration programme. Photo: CCTV
Luan Enjie, chief commander of China’s lunar exploration programme. Photo: CCTV

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Luan said development was expected to roll out over the next five years. He added the rocket would speed up China’s ambitious space programme and infrastructure development. This includes its first permanent space station by 2022 and a lunar station by 2045. “To put it simply, the 100 tonnes capacity means the vehicle can reach the moon,” he said.

The new rocket’s payload is four times the 25-tonne Long March 5, the biggest member of China’s rocket family and the third most powerful orbital launch vehicle currently in operation. The Falcon Heavy is at number one, with a maximum payload of 64 tonnes, more than twice its closest rival United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy.

Chinese state media announced in early January that the country was planning more than 40 rocket launches this year – its highest ever total – as it continues to expand its ambitions in space. According to the space agency’s official WeChat account, the planned launches will include the core module for China’s first space station.

The Tiangong space station’s core module is expected to be launched in the spring, with the aim to complete construction by the end of next year.

Last year was a busy one for China’s space programme, with the completion of the BeiDou satellite chain and the launch of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars. The Chang’e 5 lunar mission was the highlight, with its successful return in December with the first rock samples from the moon in more than 40 years.

China also conducted a secretive test flight of what was believed to be a fixed-wing reusable space plane, similar to the US space shuttle.

Before 2007, China carried out no more than 10 launches a year but the programme has gathered momentum, with 152 launches over the past five years – more than any other country, although it still lags behind the US in areas such as reusable launch systems and satellite manufacture.

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