China outlines ambitious plans for Moon landing; ZhuQue-2 prepares to launch again

by Adrian Beil

Over the last few weeks, China has remained busy with both launching rockets and announcing news, as the country outlined its ambitious plans for its upcoming Lunar program, in which they hope to land a taikonaut on the surface of the Moon by 2030.

What’s more, China launched a rideshare mission on an all-solid rocket and LandSpace is preparing to launch ZhuQue-2 again in hopes of winning the title of the first methane rocket to ever reach orbit.

China’s Ambitious Lunar Exploration Plans

Chinese officials have once again announced that the Chinese government plans to land taikonauts on the surface of the Moon by 2030. In the pre-coverage of the Shenzhou-16 launch to the Tiangong Space Station, China detailed several mission parameters of their planned Moon landing(s).

According to statements released by the agency and other partners, the China Manned Space Agency is on track to land people on the Moon before the end of the decade. They also detailed the progress and development timeline of the upcoming Chang Zheng 10 rocket, which is the cornerstone of China’s lunar ambitions. According to officials, the fifth and sixth launches of the rocket will be the flights that are involved in the landing of the first crew. One of the flights will carry the lander, while the other will carry the launch and return capsule. 

Designed to be very similar to the Apollo missions of the late 60s and early 70s, the lander will separate from the return module and land the taikonauts on the lunar surface. When all of the mission’s surface activities have been completed, the ascent module of the lander will ignite and insert the crew back into lunar orbit, where they will dock with the return module and return to Earth. 

In addition to these lunar surface exploration plans, Wu Weiren, the chief designer of China´s lunar exploration program, announced China’s plans to build an internet satellite constellation around the Moon to provide communication, navigation, and remote sensing services to future missions. What’s more, China also confirmed the development of a next-generation space suit that will support these lunar missions. 

The super-heavy-lift Chang Zheng 10 rocket is currently expected to debut in 2027. It is a triple-core version of the Chang Zheng 5 and features three five-meter-diameter cores with the engine count below each core increasing to seven YF-100K engines. It can deliver up to 70,000 kilograms into low-Earth orbit (LEO) and up to 27,000 kilograms to the Moon via trans-lunar injection.

While Chang Zheng 10 is certainly large, the even larger Chang Zheng 9 is currently in development and expected to debut in the 2030s. The Chang Zheng 9 development teams recently completed their initial design review, and the development of engines, hardware, and structures for the rocket has officially begun. Down the line, in the 2040s, the rocket is planned to feature full reusability. 

LandSpace Preparing to Launch ZhuQue-2 Again

Landspace´s ZhuQue-2 (ZQ-2) rocket was recently spotted sitting in the horizontal position at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The methane-based rocket, which attempted to reach orbit at the end of last year, is expected to perform a second attempt to reach orbit in the coming days. A few months ago, LandSpace announced that the first flight failed due to issues with materials on the second stage, as it shut down in preparation for the ignition of the four vernier engines on the second stage.

After Relativity Space announced that their Terran-1 rocket would not fly again, ZQ-2 is now competing with SpaceX´s Starship and the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rockets to be the first methane-based rocket to reach orbit. Thus far, Starship, ZQ-2, and Terran-1 all have tried to perform a launch to orbit, each failing at different moments in their flights.

Furthermore, LandSpace announced that stacking of the third ZQ-2 rocket had already begun, which will feature improvements over the first two rockets, including changes to the vernier engines that failed on the first flight. LandSpace has heavily hinted at reusing ZQ-2 in the future, as they have started performing reignition tests for their first-stage engines. 

Lijian-1 Launches Rideshare Mission

After initial uncertainty about the mission’s success, China confirmed the success of the launch of the Shiyan-24A/B mission atop the Lijian-1 rocket. Liftoff was at 04:10 UTC from Jiuquan. The payloads were lofted into a Sun-synchronous orbit.

Shiyan satellites are experimental satellites that conduct tests for the Chinese government. Not much is known about the specific tests that the Shiyan satellites perform, though.

In addition to the Shiyan payloads, the rocket launched 24 other satellites. One of these satellites was the Fucheng-1 satellite, which is the first Sichuan-made SAR remote sensing satellite. It was manufactured by the Mianyang Fucheng Satellite Factory, and production started in June 2022. 

Lijian-1 in the horizontal position. (Credit: CAS Space)

Lijian-1 is an all-solid four-stage launch vehicle developed as part of China’s high-pace, high-response fleet of rockets. The vehicle was developed by the Guangzhou Zhongke Aerospace Exploration Technology Co. Ltd. (CAS Space). 

The rocket is 2.65 meters in diameter, stands 30 meters in height, weighs 135 tons at liftoff, and can lift 2.20 tons to LEO. Lijian-1 is very similar to the European Vega rocket, which had similar specs and comparable performance before its upgrade to Vega-C. Developed from the DF-31 ICBM, Lijian-1 is China’s largest solid-based launch vehicle.

(Lead image: Liftoff of Lijian-1. Credit: CAS Space)

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