WE DO NOT yet know — and may not for some time — what was the ‘anomaly’ that caused the failure seemingly some 10 minutes after take-off of the new Long March-5 rocket launched on July 2.
Beyond the obvious national embarrassment of any such space programme failure, this particular one is damaging to China’s space programme. How damaging will not be clear until it is known whether the failure lay in the Long March-5 launch vehicle or its Dongfanghong-5 (DFH-5) satellite propulsion system payload.
This was only the second flight of the Long March-5, intended as the first of a family of work-horse heavy-lift launch vehicles for the forthcoming lunar and Mars space programmes that will frame China’s civil and military space programme for the next few decades. The rocket can lift twice the payload of any other Chinese rocket and is on a par with the most powerful launchers the Americans have.
The DFH-5 satellite propulsion system is similarly leading edge in its use of new technologies. It and intended to put the next generation of large geostationary telecoms and earth observation satellites in orbit and control them once there. This one was attached to the new (and heavy) experimental Shijian-18 communications satellite.
Such satellites could be used for a variety of communications services from internet connectivity to aeronautical services, distance learning and telemedicine, all of which will be of used for China’s planned high-tech civil and military development.
Unusually, the launch was covered live on TV. Although coverage ended abruptly and without explanation, authorities were, at least, spared the embarrassment of a catastrophic failure while the rocket was still visible to the cameras. However, it was a powerful reminder that space flight is dangerous, difficult and complex. It is rocket science.