Wed, Jul 05, 2017 - Page 5 News List

Rocket failure hurts China’s space aims

AP, BEIJING

People on Sunday watch the launch of a Long March 5 Y2 rocket from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in China’s Hainan Province.

Photo: Reuters

The failure of China’s Long March 5 rocket deals a rare setback to China’s highly successful space program that could delay plans to bring back moon samples and offer rival India a chance to move ahead in the space rankings.

The still unexplained mishap shows that for all its triumphs, China’s space program is not immune to the difficulties and risks involved in working with such cutting-edge technology, experts said.

“China’s approach has been slow and prudent, trying to avoid this kind of ‘failure,’ even though they knew it was going to occur sooner or later,” Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China’s space program at the US Naval War College, wrote in an e-mail.

The Long March 5 Y2 that took off on Sunday in the second launch of a Long March 5 rocket, suffered an abnormality during the flight after what appeared to be a successful liftoff from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province, authorities said.

The incident is under investigation and the authorities have yet to comment on possible causes, or any knock-on effects on the program as a whole.

Nicknamed “Chubby 5” for its massive, 5m girth, the Long March 5 is China’s largest and most brawny launch vehicle, capable of carrying 25 tonnes of payload into low-Earth orbit and 14 tonnes to the more distant geostationary transfer orbit in which a satellite orbits constantly above a fixed position on the Earth’s surface

That is more than double that of the Long March 7, the backbone of the Chinese launching fleet, making it the linchpin for launch duties requiring such massive heft such as interplanetary travel.

First among those is the mission slated for November by the Chang’e 5 probe to land a rover on the moon before returning to Earth with samples — the first time that has been done since 1976.

China’s most technically demanding mission to date, it had been put off before because of funding and then technology issues, Johnson-Freese said.

While the Long March 5 has suffered other setbacks, the lunar mission is “certainly the most visible one,” she said.

Other upcoming Chinese missions include the launch next year of the 20-tonne core module for China’s orbiting Tiangong 2 space station, along with specialized components for the 60-tonne station that is due to come online in 2022 and other massive payloads in future.

The Long March 5 was also due to be the launch vehicle for a Mars rover planned for the mid-2020s.

Problems with the Long March 5 might stem from its use of liquefied gases that are less stable than the solid propellants used in other rockets, said Morris Jones, an Australian space analyst and regular contributor to SpaceDaily.com.

Unlike earlier rockets that used highly toxic fuels, the Long March 5 burns a more environmentally friendly and less expensive kerosene-liquid oxygen-liquid hydrogen mix — which is more complex and harder to regulate.

Test launched for the first time last year in what had been a towering success, the 57m two-stage rocket is just slightly less powerful than the most powerful rocket in service, the US’ United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV, although SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is designed to carry a payload of more than 50 tonnes into low-Earth orbit.

Administrators said a manned landing on the moon might also be in the program’s future.

However, it has not all been smooth sailing.

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