China will soon conduct the first flight of the Long March 6 launch vehicle using the country's new-generation rocket engine, according to a senior scientist.
"A launch of the Long March 6 is planned in the middle of the year and it will use the newly developed 120-ton-thrust engine as its main propulsion," said Tan Yonghua, president of the Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology and a national lawmaker.
"The Long March 7 and our most powerful rocket, the Long March 5, will make their first flights next year and they will also use the new engine," he said on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress.
The academy, China's leading developer of the liquid-fueled rocket engine, forms part of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the major contractor for the country's space activities.
The Long March 6 is a high-speed response launch vehicle capable of placing a payload of about 1 metric ton into a sun-synchronous orbit at a height of 700 km.
The new engine, which has been developed by the academy since 2000, will use liquid oxygen and kerosene as its propellants, meaning it is much more eco-friendly than current engines, Tan said.
With the new engine, the Long March 5 will have a payload capacity of 25 metric tons for low Earth orbits, or 14 tons for geostationary transfer orbits. The latter type of orbit is fixed with respect to a position on Earth.
The Long March 7 will be capable of sending payloads of 13.5 tons into low Earth orbits and of 5.5 tons into sun-synchronous orbits, Tan said.
He added that the new engine has a thrust that is 60 per cent greater than current ones and can carry a payload 2.5 times larger than its predecessors.
An astronautical researcher close to the nation's space programme said China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp developed the Long March 6 in an attempt to gain more foreign contracts for launching lightweight satellites.
"Many satellites weighing less than 1 ton are soon expected to enter service, so the rocket doesn't need to have a heavy payload capacity," the researcher said on condition of anonymity.
"Therefore, if we continued to use our current rockets to launch them, it would be a huge waste. The Long March 6 will fill the gap in our rocket family."
Tan said that despite China having made huge strides in rocket development, it still lags behind the United States and Russia.
"We need to catch up with them in terms of materials, manufacturing techniques and heavy-lift engines," he said.