A large Chinese rocket has failed on the way to orbit, striking a blow to the fledgling space nation’s ambitious exploration plans.
The rocket was a Long March 5, a new breed of heavy-lift vehicle developed by China. The launch took place yesterday at 7.23am EDT (12.23pm BST) from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the southern province of Hainan.
The launch itself seemed to be successful. The rocket took off as planned, and climbed into space. But about 40 minutes after lift-off, an unknown anomaly seemed to affect the first and second stage separation of the rocket. Now it appears the mission has been a failure, although the fate of the rocket and payload is not yet clear.
“China's launch of latest heavy-lift carrier rocket, the Long March-5 Y2, was announced unsuccessful,” the state-run Xinhua News said in a brief article. “Abnormity was detected during the flight of the rocket.”
On board was the Shijian-18 communications satellite. This was the first in a “new series of modern Chinese high-capacity relay stations,” according to Spaceflight Now. It would have used laser communications for high-speed data links, with ion thrusters keeping it in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) high.
This was also the heaviest satellite China had ever attempted to launch, weighing 7,500 kilograms (16,500 pounds). That was made possible by the Long March 5, which is China’s most powerful rocket they’ve ever built. It can take up to 25,000 kilograms (55,000 pounds) into orbit, and has an array of important future launches planned.
Its first launch came back in November 2016, when it launched the Shijian-17 satellite. Its next launch was intended to be a lunar sample return mission in November 2017, Chang’e 5. This would have been the first mission to return a sample of the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976. That mission now looks likely to be postponed.
“I do not believe that the Chang’e lunar sample return mission will launch this year, as originally planned,” said Dr Morris Jones, a space expert based in Australia, told the South China Morning Post.
The Long March 5 is also planned to launch the core module of China’s new space station in 2019, and possibly an orbiter and rover to Mars in 2020. All of this will depend on China working out what went wrong with the rocket, and ensuring the program can continue.
And this isn’t the only rocket failure for China recently. On June 19, a Long March 3B rocket failed on its way to geostationary orbit, placing its Chinasat-9A payload satellite in a much lower orbit than intended. The satellite should still be able to get to geostationary orbit using its thrusters, according to SpaceNews, but it will significantly shorten its orbital lifetime.