China Achieves ‘Critical Milestone’ In Next-Gen Rocket Engine Tech; Claims Will Provide Big Boost To Deep Space Exploration

China has achieved a key milestone in its rocket engine program, which could provide a significant boost to its future manned mission to the moon and deep space explorations.

Chinese researchers have reached an important phase in the development of the country’s next-generation hydrogen-oxygen engine, code-named YF-79, SCMP reported.

Two tests conducted earlier this month confirmed the thrust chamber design of the rocket engine, verifying its viability for challenging space missions. According to the report, the research team may now evaluate the engine’s overall thermal performance.

The engine will be used in China’s next-generation super heavy-lift Long March 9 – also known as the CZ-9 – rocket, which is said to be the vehicle that would carry a crew to the moon. Moreover, the engine will be the most powerful of its kind, when ready.

Current and future Long March rocket models on display at the 2021 Zhuhai Airshow, including the Long March 9 (center) and new-generation crewed launcher (center-left) with launch escape system. Credit: CASC

The engine can be restarted several times with variable thrust modifications, according to the report. It is capable of undertaking manned lunar landings, manned Mars landings, and deep space explorations.

There are three missions outlined in China’s next five-year plan — retrieving samples from an asteroid, then Mars, followed by a fly-by of the Jupiter system. China, however, will need significant rocket power to achieve all of these goals.

As The EurAsian Times previously reported, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) has stated that it intends to land humans on the moon by 2030 and establish a joint lunar facility with Russia by 2035.

The CNSA intends to gather samples from Mars and expand its exploration to other planets and beyond into space.

Why Is China Working On A New Engine?

The YF-77, which drives the first stage of China’s Long March CZ-5 series of heavy-lift rockets, is slated to be replaced by the new hydrogen-oxygen engine (YF-79) in the future.

The new rocket will use a staged combustion cycle instead of the YF-77’s gas-generator cycle, which enhances efficiency by burning through the propellant more thoroughly.

From 2016 to 2019, China’s space program was hampered by long-term development issues with the YF-77, which included two failed Long March 5 (CZ-5) launches. The engine was finally fixed in 2020, and the spacecraft completed several missions, including the retrieval of lunar samples by Chang’e 5 and the launch of the Tianwen-1 Mars probe.

A Long March 5 launches the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission on Nov. 23, 2020. Credit: CNSA

China has set a number of ambitious space missions including the development of its permanent space station Tiangong. However, its existing rockets are not powerful enough to be deployed in these critical missions. The CZ-5 series had delayed some missions by nearly two years.

China’s next-generation super heavy-lift Long March 9 (CZ-9) is reportedly capable of carrying payloads of up to 50 tons to the moon and 44 tons to Mars. It has a capacity of 140 tons in low-Earth orbit, which is comparable to the US’ Falcon Heavy and about six times more powerful than the CZ-5.

YF-77 Engine – Photo: Weibo/cannews

The recent tests on the YF-79 were performed under 60% and 100% rated working circumstances, which not only verified the thrust chamber’s design but also collected crucial data. The team apparently finalized the welding of a 9.5 meter (31 foot) diameter ring to the base of the CZ-9 rocket.

For the third and final stage of the CZ-9 rocket, four YF-79 engines will be integrated, while four 500 ton-thrust supplement combustion cycle kerosene-oxygen YF-130 engines will be employed for lift-off.

The second stage of the CZ-9’s mission will be powered by two 220 ton-thrust supplement combustion cycle hydrogen-oxygen YF-90 engines, with more YF-130 engines stacked as boosters.

The YF-90 and YF-130 engines are also in the pipeline, with the first prototype of the YF-90 to be finished in July. The researchers concluded a “half-system on full working condition” test of a YF-130 engine in March, and plan to complete a whole-system test verification before the end of the year.

China’s Space Ambitions

China successfully established its own global satellite navigation system, Beidou, last year, as an alternative to the US government-owned Global Positioning System (GPS). Experts believe that it will enhance China’s overall military capabilities to keep its weapons operational during any conflict.

China previously launched a crewed expedition to its self-developed space station, which is still under development. It was China’s first human space mission since 2016.

China is not allowed to send astronauts to the International Space Station, which is a joint project involving the US, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada. This has propelled its desire to build its own space station, which once completed, will be operational for at least 10 years.

File photo: 13 satellites are blasted off atop a Long March-6 carrier rocket in Shanxi on Nov 6.

Beijing has also set its sights on the Red Planet. After landing a spacecraft on Mars in May, China intends to dispatch its first crewed mission there in 2033.

According to CNBC,  Chinese firms submitted 6,634 patents relevant to space flight, including vehicles and equipment, between January 2000 and June 2021. Given China’s ambitious space programs, these figures are noteworthy.