Destination: Mars — Long March 5 rocket flies again

The Long March 5 blasts off from Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island on December 27, 2019. Source: Xinhua.

The Global Times reports:

China’s heavy-lift launch vehicle Long March-5 returned to flight after a break of more than two years, as it successfully sent a high-throughput communication satellite Shijian-20 into planned orbit on Friday, marking a huge comeback for the currently strongest member of the country’s carrier rocket family.

Why is this important? From Space Flight Now:

[The third flight of] China’s Long March 5 rocket — the country’s most powerful launcher — [was] a critical validation mission after a core stage engine failure doomed a launch in 2017 and forced a two-and-a-half-year investigation and redesign effort.

A successful return-to-flight by the Long March 5 Friday would allow China to move forward with plans to launch a pair of ambitious robotic deep space missions using Long March 5 rockets in 2020.

China’s first Mars rover is scheduled for launch on a Long March 5 in mid-2020, and the Chinese Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission will also require the Long March 5’s lift capability to depart Earth and head for the moon.

The launch of Chang’e 5 was delayed during the grounding of the Long March 5 after the 2017 failure. China’s Mars mission must launch during a several-week-long period in mid-2020, or else wait until 2022, when Earth and Mars are in the proper positions again to make a direct interplanetary journey possible.

A future variant of the Long March 5 rocket will also launch modules of China’s planned space station, scheduled to be completed in 2022, adding another layer of importance to Friday’s test launch.

See also SupChina’s explainer on the Chinese space program.