China's answer to Starship? Comparing Long March 9 to Elon Musk's Mars rocket

China recently announced that its Long March 9 rocket will be fully reusable, just like Starship.
Chris Young
A model of Long March 9 (left) and Starship in flight (right).
A model of Long March 9 (left) and Starship in flight (right).

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China recently announced a change in plans for its next-generation Long March 9 rocket.

The super heavy-lift rocket it aims to use to eventually launch missions to deep space will no longer be expendable. Instead, much like SpaceX's Starship launch system, it will be fully reusable, driving down the cost of successive missions.

Now that we know a little more about the new Long March 9, how does China's ambitious launch vehicle compare to Starship?

China's Long March 9 announcement

China's announcement that Long March 9 will now be fully reusable was somewhat overshadowed by the successful, albeit explosive, first launch of SpaceX's Starship rocket.

The announcement was made in late April during China's national space day event in the city of Hefei, Anhui province, just a few days after Starship took to the skies for its first full flight test on April 20.

The Long March 9 rocket is being developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). It will be a three-stage rocket powered by several full flow staged combustion methane engines attached to its first stage.

If all goes to plan with that model, CALT also aims to build a two-stage variant of Long March 9 for missions to low Earth orbit (LEO).

China's answer to Starship? Comparing Long March 9 to Elon Musk's Mars rocket
Starship shortly after its first launch.

All of this is a deviation from China's previous plan to build an expendable Long March 9 rocket using 500-ton-thrust kerosene-liquid oxygen engines. The expendable model was originally intended to fly around 2028-2030. Now, the Starship-like version of Long March 9 will take several more years to develop.

It's clear that China, and the rest of the world, is keeping a close eye on the development of the fully reusable Starship launch system. In fact, CATL recently published the results of a frame-by-frame video analysis of the launch. Earlier this year, the European Space Agency released a report stating that Europe needs to invest more funds into its space industry or risk falling irretrievably behind.

Long March 9 vs Starship: Looking at the numbers

Arguably, the most significant numbers when comparing Long March 9 and Starship are those regarding the development timelines of each rocket system.

The launch of Starship may have been delayed several times, but SpaceX is still racing ahead and breaking new ground, bringing unprecedented capabilities to the space industry.

Though SpaceX may need to wait a while before receiving approval for a second flight test from the Federal Aviation Authority, the U.S.-based company utilizes a "fail fast, learn fast" approach that enables it to quickly improve its designs.

As such, Starship is slated to take crews to space surprisingly soon. Though launch dates are constantly subject to change, Starship has been chartered for the upcoming dearMoon mission scheduled for later this year, as well as NASA's upcoming Artemis III Moon landings set for 2025 or 2026.

By comparison, China is targeting 2033 for the first flights of Long March 9. However, as mentioned, it will build several variants, and the first model will only have a reusable first stage and will be capable of carrying 35 tons to lunar transfer orbit.

According to a report by SpaceNews, we won't see a fully reusable version of Long March 9 fly until about 2040. That version will be capable of carrying 80 tons to LEO.

When it comes to payload capacity, Starship is expected to carry 100-150 tons to LEO when it is fully operational in the relatively near future.

The initial version of China's Long March 9 will reportedly be 114 meters tall and it will generate 6,100 tons of thrust. Starship, meanwhile, is 120 meters tall and it generates 7,590 tons of thrust at liftoff. The Starship launch system's better capabilities are partly down to its next-generation Raptor engines. The first stage, called Super Heavy, uses 33 Raptor engines at liftoff to generate enormous amounts of thrust.

Interestingly, China's plans to alter Long March 9's design may delay its plans to launch its International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) to rival NASA's lunar Gateway project. However, it likely feels any delay will be outweighed by the benefits of having a fully reusable launch system in its hands.

Separately, the country is also developing Long March 10, which it hopes to fly for the first time in 2027. If all goes to plan with Long March 10, China hopes to send a crew to the lunar surface before 2030.

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