At 1243 GMT, on 2 November 2016, China carried out the maiden launch of the new Long March 5 (CZ-5), heavy-lift rocket, which has been under development by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) since 2001. The launch took place from the recently commissioned Wenchang Space Launch Centre, Hainan Island, in south-eastern China.
The rocket is designed to provide performance comparable to that of an American Delta IV Heavy, currently the most powerful rocket in operation. The Long March 5 will be used to place in orbit modules for the future Chinese space station. To meet these requirements the rocket is believed to be designed for a capability of 25 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) and 14 tons to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
The payload for this maiden launch is known as Shi Jian 17, but little else was known about it prior to the launch. Post-launch, an article from Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency, described the spacecraft as a “technology demonstration geostationary satellite”, which when in final orbit would provide “communication and broadcasting services”, as well as conducting various technology demonstrations consisting of “ion thruster propulsion, new power sources and observation of orbital debris”.
Orbital debris is an embarrassing subject for China. It attracted international criticism after it nearly doubled the tracked debris in LEO with a missile interception of one of its satellites (Feng Yun 1C) in 2007.
The Long March-5 maiden launch gained plaudits from other nations and even its competitor launch providers, including one from SpaceX founder Elon Musk on his Twitter feed. However, views have turned negative since the revelation that the YZ-2 stage, which took the Shi Jian 17 satellite payload nearly all the way to GEO, had been left there, presenting a major debris hazard in the key commercial orbit.
David Todd contributed to this story