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Beefed-up rocket is key to China's space future
10:54 18 October 2005
NewScientist.com news service

Fresh on the heels of its most successful foray into space, China is laying the groundwork for a permanently crewed space station. But to reach that goal, analysts say the country must first develop a rocket three times more powerful as those in its current fleet.
Astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng came back to a hero's welcome on Monday after 115 hours and 32 minutes in orbit, having travelled 3.25 million kilometres through space.
Just hours later, Tang Xianming, director of China's Manned Space Engineering Office, told a press conference the next mission would include a spacewalk and was scheduled for 2007. Docking operations between two spacecraft in orbit would take place in the period from 2009 to 2012, he said.
All of the flights are seen as preparation for a space station. But James Oberg, an aerospace consultant based in Dickinson, Texas, US, says China must first develop its existing designs for a more powerful rocket.

Beefed-up launcher

Dubbed the Long March 5, it would boast three times the power of the current Long March 2F launcher, he says. "That would be the key to their space station, the key to profitable commercial launches of communications satellites, and the key, if they want to, to fly the Shenzhou further away from Earth," Oberg says.
He adds that China may decide only to fly around the Moon because a lunar landing is "vastly more expensive, with only marginally more political benefits".
The new rocket would take at least five years to develop, he says. And it will probably force China to build a new launch centre, as the rail leading to the existing Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northern China is simply not large enough to carry the beefed-up launcher.
A likely alternative site is Hainan Island, the tropical province south of the mainland. That would allow the rockets to be transported by barge to the launch pad, says Oberg.


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