Long March-5 rocket takes off from Wenchang

Chinese lunar mission rocket fails one hour after launch

Image credit: Reuters/Stringer

The launch of a powerful, reliable Long March-5 rocket carrying a communications satellite ended in unexplained failure this weekend. This could have implications for China’s upcoming lunar sample return mission, which is expected to use a Long March-5 rocket.

The Long March-5 Y2 rocket was launched from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Wanchang, in the island province of Hainan in the South China Sea. The rocket cleared the atmosphere, but then failed approximately one hour after take-off. The satellite eventually plunged into the Pacific Ocean.

“An anomaly occurred during the flight of the rocket,” Xinhua news agency reported. “Further investigation will be carried out.”

This is the second rocket launch failure in a fortnight for China: on June 19, a Long March-3 rocket attempting to deliver a broadcasting satellite into orbit failed to enter the correct orbit.

The Long March-5 model is the second most powerful rocket in the world (after the American Delta IV Heavy) in terms of payload capacity. The failed rocket was carrying China’s heaviest satellite ever, the government reported. This was the Sijian-18, an experimental communications satellite.

The heavy-lift rocket, generally considered very reliable, completed a successful launch from the same space centre in November 2016.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised to accelerate China’s space programme, particularly for the sake of defence and national security. Beijing has described the programme as peaceful, intended to prevent hostile nations using their space assets for aggression.

In 2003, China became the third country – after the US and Russia – to independently send humans into space, with the Shenzhou 5 mission.

Ambitions for the Chinese space programme include a permanent space station by 2020, and manned lunar missions. The ongoing Chinese Lunar Exploration (Chang’e) Program comprises a series of unmanned lunar missions, using orbiters, landers, rovers and other spacecraft to study the moon. Leading figures in the Chang’e programme, including chief scientist Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, have advocated the exploitation of valuable lunar resources such as titanium and helium-3.

The Chang’e 3 lunar orbiter, which carried the Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) lunar rover, launched in 2013, and ran into some technical difficulties.

Its successor, Chang’e 5, is scheduled for 2017. It will use a Long March-5 rocket to carry cameras, analytical instruments and a robotic drilling rig to the moon, and will attempt to collect and return lunar samples to Earth. It is not known how this ambitious mission may be affected by the failure of the launch.

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