China announces failure in first launch of new Long March 7A rocket

This image of the Long March 7A rocket was posted on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.

A Chinese Long March 7A rocket failed to place a secret payload into orbit Monday, casting doubt on planned flights by the country’s other launchers that use similar engines.

Chinese state media confirmed the launch failure Monday, but officials offered no details on when in the Long March 7A’s flight sequence the accident occurred.

The Long March 7A rocket is a new variant of China’s Long March 7 launcher. Monday’s mission was the first flight of a Long March 7A, which includes a third stage on top of the Long March 7’s first and second stages.

“The first of China’s new medium-sized carrier rocket Long March 7A suffered a failure Monday,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said.

The 197-foot-tall (60.13-meter) Long March 7A rocket lifted off at 1334 GMT (9:34 a.m. EDT) Monday from the Wenchang space center on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost launch site.

The rocket was expected to head toward the east over the South China Sea to place a classified payload named XJY 6 into an elliptical, or egg-shaped, geostationary transfer orbit around a half-hour after liftoff.

But something went wrong, and the launcher did not inject the satellite into orbit as planned. The Xinhua news agency said a “malfunction occurred” after launch.

Xinhua said Chinese engineers will investigate the cause of the failure.

The first two flights of the Long March 7 rocket in 2016 and 2017 were successful.

Depending on when in Monday’s mission the failure occurred, the effects of the accident could ripple across China’s space program.

The Long March 7A is powered by four strap-on boosters powered by kerosene-fueled YF-100 engines, and a central core stage with two YF-100 engines. The rocket’s second stage has four YF-115 engines, also fed by kerosene and liquid oxygen, and two hydrogen-fueled YF-75 engines are on the new third stage added to create the Long March 7A configuration.

The YF-100 engines fly on the strap-on boosters of the Long March 5 rocket, the most powerful launcher in China’s fleet. The next Long March 5 launch is scheduled for April on a test flight of a new rocket configuration designed to loft modules for China’s space station.

Another Long March 5 rocket is planned in July to carry China’s first Mars rover into space.

The YF-100 engines also fly on China’s light-class Long March 6 launcher, and the Long March 8 rocket planned for an inaugural flight later the year also uses the YF-100 powerplants.

The Long March 7’s second stage YF-115 engines are also used on the Long March 6.

And versions of the cryogenic YF-75 engine fly on some variants of the Long March 5. The Long March 3B rocket, which China uses to deliver Beidou navigation satellites and communications payloads to high-altitude orbits, also relies on YF-75 engines for its third stage.

Officials released no immediate information about potential delays of future launches stemming from the effects of Monday’s failure

China’s new Long March 5, 6, 7 and 8 rockets are designed to eventually replace the country’s older Long March vehicles, which use toxic propellants and launch from inland spaceports, often dropping spent stages near populated areas.

The Long March 7A rocket is a potential replacement for the Long March 3B for launches with geostationary satellites. The Long March 7, without the addition of the new upper stage, is designed to carry resupply ships to China’s planned space station.

The next launch from Wenchang, where launching rockets drop boosters over the sea instead of land, is the debut flight of the Long March 5B rocket scheduled for April.

Most launch activity in China has continued during the coronavirus outbreak.

Monday’s Long March 7A rocket was the sixth satellite launch attempt by China so far in 2020. The previous five missions were all successful.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.