China’s national space administration has scheduled a busy year in its launch calendar, with at least 28 Long March rockets due to blast payloads into orbit to meet a mix of scientific and political objectives.
There have already been seven launches in the first two months of the year, including a mission in February that placed two BeiDou navigation satellites in orbit atop a Long March-3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. This was the 267th mission for the Long March series, stretching back four decades.
Pending launches will catapult the Chang’e lunar probe into space and place 18 more BeiDou satellites, thereby completing the nation’s global positioning system, Xinhua reported. Extended navigation coverage will enable Beijing to step up its Belt and Road infrastructure projects in southern and central regions of Asia in 2018.
“We have a rather tight schedule,” the state news agency quoted a China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology official as saying.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing. In July last year a Long March V rocket failed during a launch because of a stalled propeller. It is the same rocket that is scheduled to carry the Chang’e-4 lunar probe later this year; the unnamed payload will land on the far side of the Moon.
Long March V is China’s most powerful heavy-lift rocket, capable of blasting a payload of up to 25 tons into a low Earth orbit. An extra communication relaying satellite for Chang’e-4 will also be launched.
The Long March still has come territory to cover, as US billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX program sent a payload of nearly 64 tons into space in February on the Falcon Heavy rocket. It can lift more than twice the payload of the next biggest rocket, the Delta IV Heavy.
Anxious to close the gap, Beijing is reportedly pushing its scientists to expedite development and testing of the Long March-9 rocket, which is supposed to have a capacity of more than 100 tons. The rocket was originally intended to be operational by 2030.
China was the fifth country to place a satellite in space after the Soviet Union, the United States, France and Japan. Its first satellite, Dongfanghong-1 (“the East is Red”), was launched on a Long March-1 rocket in April 1970.