China’s space programme has moved a step closer to crewed lunar and interplanetary missions with the completion of a prototype super heavy-lift rocket engine, according to state media. The 220-tonne engine is intended to power the next generation Long March 9 (CZ-9) carrier rocket, expected to enter service before 2030. The CZ-9 will be a three-stage rocket with boosters, with the new engine forming its core and second stage, according to China Space News. “It is one of the most important symbols of a nation becoming a space power,” the report said. China has big ambitions in space and has stepped up its extraterrestrial competition with the US in recent years. Last year’s successful Chang’e 5 mission to collect lunar samples was quickly followed by the Tianwen 1’s historic landing on Mars in May. Construction of the Tiangong space station – where three astronauts have been based since June – is expected to be completed next year. The China National Space Agency (CNSA) plans to land people on the moon by 2030 and announced plans in June to set up a joint lunar station with Russia around 2035. But China’s rocket capability has been a bottleneck to its ambitions for bigger missions into deeper space. The CZ-5 – the most powerful Chinese rocket in operation – has a payload of 25 tonnes to lower Earth orbit (LEO). In contrast the CZ-9, benchmarked with the SpaceX Starship rocket developed in the US, will have a capacity of 150 tonnes to the LEO. The new supplement combustion cycle hydrogen-oxygen engine has been in development for at least four years. Its key specifications – including engine thrust, vacuum specific impulse and thrust-to-weight ratio – have set records for China’s rocket engines, although the China Space News report did not give details. Developer China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) – the major contractor for China’s space programme – will complete half-system testing and whole-system test verification this year, according to China Space News. The location for the test run site had been chosen and its design finalised, CASC said. Meanwhile, another branch of CNSA has successfully completed welding of a 9.5 metre (31 feet) diameter ring to the base of the CZ-9 rocket. Once the CZ-9 enters service, it is expected to power a crewed lunar landing and eventually a mission to retrieve samples from Mars.