China’s Huge Long March 5 Rocket Returns to Flight in Dazzling Nighttime Launch

It’s the third Long March 5 ever to fly.

China’s biggest rocket, the Long March 5, returned to flight for the first time since a 2017 failure Friday (Dec. 27) in a dazzling nighttime launch for the Chinese space program

The Long March 5 Y3 rocket lifted off at 8:45 p.m. Beijing Time carrying the experimental Shijian 20 communications satellite into a geosynchronous orbit. The satellite, which weighs a reported 8 metric tons, is China’s heaviest and most advanced satellite to date, according to state media reports.

The successful launch is the first Long March 5 since a first-stage booster failure in 2017 destroyed the Shijian 18 satellite. The failure prompted redesigns in the rocket’s first-stage engines, which led to a two-year gap between missions. The first Long March 5 rocket lifted off in 2016.

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China's massive heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket returns to flight in a dazzling nighttime launch from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island.
China’s massive heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket returns to flight in a dazzling nighttime launch from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island. (Image credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation)

The Long March 5 is an essential booster for China’s space ambitions. The heavy-lift booster will be the one to launch China’s space station modules into orbit, as well as a Mars lander in 2020 and the Chang’e 5 moon sample-return mission

China is also expected to use a version of the Long March 5, called the Long March 5B, to launch a new crewed spacecraft — the successor to its current Shenzhou crew capsule. 

The rocket stands 184 feet (56 meters) tall and weighs nearly 2 million lbs. (867,000 kilograms) at liftoff. It is capable of carrying payloads of up to 55,000 lbs. (25,000 kilograms) into low Earth orbit. It can haul up  31,000 lbs. (14,000 kg) to a higher geostationary transfer orbit.

The Shijian 20 satellite (its name means “Practice”) is designed to be a high-throughput communications satellite “capable of delivering 1 Tbps [1 terabute per second] bandwidth for ultrafast speeds,” Chinese space officials said according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.  

Shijian 20 is also expected to test a laser communications payload for future missions, as well as new ion thrusters for propulsion.