China: Successful Launch Extends Space Program's Reach

3 MINS READNov 3, 2016 | 18:31 GMT

The launch of the Long March 5 rocket system on Nov. 3 from Hainan Island marks a step forward for the Chinese space program. The successful debut of the rocket gives China the payload capacity to effectively match rival programs' heavy-launch vehicles, including Russia's Proton M and the United States' Delta IV Heavy or Atlas V. Besides the prestige its newest launch vehicle adds to China's civil space program, it also increases Beijing's military capabilities.

The Long March 5 effectively doubles the mass of payloads that China can send into low earth orbit — to 25 metric tons — and nearly triples what it can send to geostationary transfer orbit — to 14 metric tons. The rocket will serve as a workhorse as China builds its planned space station in the 2020s and will also propel the country's exploration of the moon and Mars. Yet, military capabilities are just as important to Beijing as space exploitation. The United States uses the Delta IV Heavy — the most powerful rocket now in service — almost exclusively to launch classified payloads and other government satellites. Complex military or intelligence spacecraft tend to be heavier, requiring more lift. The Long March 5 now gives China a similar launch capability.

It is just one of a number of next-generation heavy-lift rockets in the design and construction stages. In the United States alone, such systems are under development by NASA (Space Launch System); the Boeing-Lockheed Martin partnership United Launch Alliance (Vulcan); Blue Origin (New Glenn); and Space X (Falcon Heavy). Space X also plans to develop the Interplanetary Transport System to fulfill founder Elon Musk's ambitions to colonize Mars. Russia and the European Space Agency are also developing their own new heavy systems. Given global interest in missions to the moon, Mars and nearby asteroids, efforts to build such systems can be expected to continue.

A major difference between the Long March 5 and many of the other systems in development elsewhere — particularly in the United States — is its initial lack of a reusable design. Although the Chinese plan to explore the possibility, the single-use nature of the Long March 5 will contribute to the difficulty of China's establishing itself as a viable competitor in the commercial launch industry. The higher costs of a non-reusable rocket and the U.S. ban on the export of some space technologies will for now limit the benefits of the Long March 5 to China's own commercial, civilian and military space capabilities.

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