China’s space program has taken another step forward after it unveiled the new rocket astronauts will use for its future manned moon mission.
The launch vehicle was unveiled at the 2020 China Space Conference in Fuzhou, Fujian Province on Sept. 18, according to Space.
Although the rocket has yet to receive a formal name, those involved in the project have nicknamed it “921 rocket” as a nod to the codename given to China’s human spaceflight program founded on Sept. 21, 1992.
It weighs nearly three times as heavy as China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5, at 4.8 million pounds (2,200 metric tons). It is designed to carry and send a spacecraft with a weight of 27.6 tons (25 metric tons) into space.
“The world is seeing a new wave of lunar exploration, crewed or uncrewed,” deputy general designer of China’s human spaceflight program, Zhou Yanfei, told Chinese media. “International cooperation projects in crewed lunar exploration are intertwined and influencing each other.”
The new rocket, designed at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) in Beijing, will be measured at 285 feet (87 meters) long and will come equipped with a three-stage central core. It will feature three 16.4-foot diameter (5-meter) cores, clusters of already-developed YF-100K engines and 16.4-foot diameter rocket bodies.
Zhou said there are some hurdles the moon mission will have to overcome first, such as the spacecraft’s ability to safely transport astronauts to the moon and back.
“The transportation capacity of our Long March rockets cannot satisfy the demands. Currently our Shenzhou spaceships in low Earth orbit are unable to meet the needs of moon landing, either. Also, we need a lander for the mission,” the deputy general designer said.
There is also a problem with “survival ability under extraterrestrial circumstances,” which China currently lacks, Zhou notes.
“We do not have any experience in that yet. Neither do we have ground support capacity. So far our crewed space exploration missions have been focused on tasks in low Earth orbit,” Zhou added.
China’s space authorities have already decided Wenchang Space Launch Center in Henan Province will be the mission’s launch site and designate a return site either by land or sea, Global Times reported.
No official launch date has been announced as China has yet to approve a manned mission to the moon.