Long March 5 rocket fails minutes after launch

The Long March-5 rocket was launched from the new Wenchang spaceport (pictured). Image courtesy of CASC.
The Long March-5 rocket was launched from the new Wenchang spaceport (pictured). Image courtesy of CASC.

China's largest rocket, the Long March 5 has suffered a launch failure which could throw Chinese space exploration plans into disarray.

Over the weekend China attempted to launch the rocket for just the second time since it had been developed.

The Long March 5 heavy lift rocket blasted off at 7:23 pm from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in China’s southern province of Hainan, carrying the experimental communications satellite Shijian-18.

However, the rocket began to encounter difficulties just minutes after launch. The core stage of the rocket separated later than planned from the 2nd stage, and the rocket began to lose altitude.

Livestreamed footage of the launch showed a plume of gas erupting from the side of the craft during the period before it signal was lost.

China’s state media declined to provide significant information on the incident, instead describing it merely as an ‘anomaly’ and that more investigations would be carried out.

Determining the cause of such in-flight rocket failures is often a long and time-consuming process, with similar accidents by SpaceX and Orbital ATK leading to months of investigations.

A damper on China’s spaceflight ambitions

This weekend’s Long March 5 flight was designed to prove the reliability of the rocket before it was deployed for use delivering more high-profile missions into space.

In November this year, the rocket was slated to launch the Chang’e 5 probe to the Moon, which would mine and return rocks from the Lunar surface.

Then, in the coming years, the rocket was planned to be used for the launch of several key sections of China’s forthcoming Tianhe space station.

Given this failure, however, these plans will likely be delayed. China is unlikely to risk such high-profile payloads to being lost in another rocket failure, and will probably need to wait for further test flights to be completed before this goes ahead.

As such, this failure provides an opportunity for other upstart space powers, such as India, to prove the viability of their own tech, and achieve key milestones before (or at the same time as) China.