China’s potentially reusable Long March-8 makes successful maiden flight
Published: Dec 22, 2020 01:02 PM

China's new generation medium-sized launch vehicle Long March-8 made a successful maiden flight from the tropical island province of Hainan in South China on Tuesday, sending five satellites into designated orbit at the same time. 

According to the model's designers from the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), a subordinate to the state aerospace giant China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), Long March-8 is capable of launching a payload of three to four and a half tons to the Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). As a new member of the Long March carrier rocket family, the development of the Long March-8 aims to fill this gap, and the rocket model will be tasked with meeting surging demand for launch services from commercial satellite companies at home and abroad.

The Long March-8's successful maiden flight means a lot to China's efforts to build itself into a space power, as it will strongly push forward the upgrading of China's medium-sized launch vehicles, and will lead the development of the country's satellites in medium and low orbits and meet the launch requirements for these spacecrafts, Xiao Yun, the rocket's commander-in-chief, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

The 50.3-meter-long Long March-8 has a 3.35-meter-diameter core stage and two 2.25-meter-diameter side boosters. Weighing 356 tons at launch, it has a 480-ton take-off thrust and is capable of sending payloads weighing more than 4.5 tons into the SSO 700 kilometers above the ground, CALT said in a statement it sent to the Global Times. 

We already had a carrier rocket that is capable of sending payloads of three tons to the SSO, and the Long March-8 will fill in a gap by boosting the country's SSO launch capability from three to around five tons, which will help advance the development of a more powerful satellite platform, Xiao noted.

The model has been dubbed the "Chinese version of SpaceX Falcon 9" for its potential to be reusable. The first stage of Long March-8 is expected to become reusable 10 times by 2025, and by 2035, the entire rocket is expected to be reusable, the CASC said in early November. 

A rocket engine needs to be throttleable to achieve zero velocity at the same time as it reaches the ground, which is a core technological requirement for building a reusable launch vehicle system.

This technology was tested for the first time in the Long March-8 maiden flight, which is also an experimental flight for the new rocket type, paving the way for further study and development for the reusable rocket system, according to the CASC statement.

In the long run, the Long March-8 will also be extremely smart, said the CASC. It will be able to adjust its flight status automatically if it encounters a malfunction, greatly improving the mission results.

Wu Yansheng, a senior official with the CASC, previously revealed in November that China aims to develop the first launch vehicle capable of vertical take-off and vertical landing (VTVL) by 2025.

Long March-8's enhanced variant in the future could be the first Chinese rocket to become a VTVL launcher, space observers said.