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#SpaceWatchGL Column: Dongfang Hour China Aerospace News Roundup 31 May – 6 June 2021

by Blaine Curcio and Jean Deville

As part of the partnership between SpaceWatch.Global and Orbital Gateway Consulting we have been granted permission to publish selected articles and texts. We are pleased to present “Dongfang Hour China Aerospace News Roundup 31 May – 6 June 2021”.

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Dongfang Hour China Aero/Space News Roundup! A special shout-out to our friends at GoTaikonauts!, and at SpaceWatch.Global, both excellent sources of space industry news. In particular, we suggest checking out GoTaikonauts! long-form China reporting, as well as the Space Cafe series from SpaceWatch.Global. Without further ado, the news update from the week of 31 May – 6 June 2021.

1) Launch of Fengyun-4B Meteorology Satellite

Blaine’s Take

3 June early morning China time saw the successful launch of the Fengyun-4B meteorology satellite from Xichang onboard a Long March-3B. The satellite is the latest in China’s Fengyun constellation, and is the second Fengyun 4 satellite to be launched to geostationary orbit, joining Fengyun-4A, which was launched in 2016. An article published by China Space News gave a deep-dive into FY-4B, noting that it was the first “operational” satellite in the FY-4 constellation (FY-4A is experimental). The FY-4B satellite is equipped with a fast imager, radiation imager, interferometric infrared detector, and space environment monitoring instruments. The fast imager is capable of taking true-color snapshots of an area of 2000km x 2000km, which is well-suited for capturing relatively small targets, such as typhoons, sandstorms, etc, according to the article.

Earth by FY-4a; Credits: National Satellite Meteorological Center

Fengyun-4B will have double the resolution of Fengyun-4A, and is able to observe an area of 1000km x 1000km in about 15 seconds. During the 14th Five-Year Plan Period (2021-2025), China plans to launch one more FY-4 series satellite, likely to GEO, as well as multiple FY-3 satellites to polar orbit. The increase in emphasis on meteorology satellites may in part be due to the Chinese government getting more serious about climate change and environmental conditions more generally. Earlier this year, we also saw the announcement of the “Atmosphere” constellation (大气), which aims to launch multiple satellites for monitoring different atmospheric pollutants.

Fengyun is one of China’s oldest space programs, with the first Fengyun meteorology satellites launched all the way back in 1988 and 1990. Since then, we have seen a total of 18x Fengyun satellites launched into Polar orbit and geostationary orbit. Not all of these 18 satellites are in service, and it’s useful to distinguish two generations of satellites, subdivided into SSO and GEO series:

  • Fengyun 2 and Fengyun 4 are the geostationary satellites. Fengyun 2 was the earlier generation, and most of them have been or are in the process of being phased out. The Fengyun 4 series (of which 2 are now in orbit) form the new generation, and are based on the much heavier SAST5000 bus built by SAST (5400 kg total mass for FY4 vs 1200-1300 kg for FY2).
  • Fengyun 1 and Fengyun 3 are the weather satellites in SSO. Fengyun 1 satellites have been phased out, and the Fengyun 3 satellites that are currently operational.

Noteworthily, one of the earlier Fengyun satellites–Fengyun-1C–was destroyed in an anti-satellite missile test conducted by China in 2007, which created a couple thousand pieces of trackable debris (i.e. golf-ball sized), and an estimated 150,000 pieces of debris in total. Among other things, the test led to a pretty cool image from NASA of the different orbits that the debris was scattered into during the days and weeks after the test.

Jean’s Take

Fengyun is definitely an interesting program. Weather applications are one of those uncommon EO sub verticals where geostationary satellites can prove to be extremely useful. Most EO applications tend to strive for better resolution, meaning having satellites in lower Earth orbits (think for example imaging farmlands, detecting objects, etc).

On the other hand, there are cases where gathering data continuously over the same area is important, when local conditions are changing at a rapid pace, and this is the case of weather forecasting, and where GEO satellites have a role to play.

The Fengyun-4A and 4B satellite will continuously be able to produce maps of things like: visible light cloud coverage, infrared, water vapor, aerosols, sea surface temperature, etc. What is also very cool here is that this can be done by the same instrument: a multispectral imager: by imaging in different spectral channels, different information is being highlighted. And also, it has a specific instrument called the LMI (Lightning Mapping Imager) which will enable it to monitor lightning activity over the country.

 

2) Space Pioneer completes a full system hot test of Tianhuo-11 engine

Blaine’s Take

Space Pioneer (aka Tianbing Aerospace, 天兵科技) announced on 1 June the completion of a full-system hot test of their Tianhuo-11 engine. The engine aims to be the first reusable liquid kerolox engine in China, and according to the article, around 80% of the parts for the Tianhuo-11 are 3D printed.

Space Pioneer has had a heck of a 14 months. Since April 2020, they have completed 3x funding rounds, and have made significant progress on their Tianhuo-11. Founded by the former Landspace CTO Kang Yonglai, the company has some similar characteristics in terms of target market, namely aiming to provide an “environmentally friendly” rocket engine. The company appears to be heavily supported by various government entities, including several funding rounds involving the VC fund of Zhejiang University, and an assumed relationship with the government of Tianjin.

Jean’s Take

I must admit that I am a bit confused by what the company is planning in terms of propulsion technology. Let’s try and put the pieces together.

Previously, Tiangbing had frequently communicated on the development of 3 rocket engines, the Tianhuo-1 (1 kN) engine, the Tianhuo-2 (10 kN), and the Tianhuo-3 (30 ton) engines. All three are supposedly based on an in-house “green” monopropellant technology called HCP. As mentioned in Episode 30, this would be a massive leap in technology, monopropellants previously having served only (AFAIK) on upper stage engines, attitude control engines, or to run turbopumps. But we had some doubts on the ability of such a new company (founded in 2019!) developing such novel technology and with such an aggressive timeline (inaugural launch of the Tianlong-1 in 2022).

 And now, this piece of news we see today discusses the “Tianhuo-11” engine, which I hadn’t heard of before, which apparently provides 30 tons of thrust just like the previously mentioned Tianhuo-3 HCP-fueled engine. But Tianhuo-11 is mentioned here as a closed-cycle kerolox engine, based on an oxygen-rich preburner. This in itself is a technological feat, oxygen-rich preburners and just more generally closed cycle engines are not a piece of cake, especially for such a young startup.

The article also mentions that this Tianhuo-11 engine used HCP gas turbine start-up technology (“HCP燃气涡轮启动技术”): and there you have it again: “HCP technology”.

So in the end, I don’t know what to think. Is Tianhuo-11 a separate 30t thrust engine developed by Tianbing, based on a more traditional kerolox technology (although with an innovative closed cycle architecture)? Or is it just a rebranding of the so-called HCP 30t thrust Tianhuo-3 engine, and the HCP monopropellant only concerned starting up the turbopumps all along?

Lots of questions and no answers yet, but I must admit I am not a fan of Tianbing’s communication. It also claims that the Tianhuo-11 is the only reusable kerolox engine in China (“国内唯一可重复使用的液氧煤油发动机”), which is also untrue, considering that a number of other launch startups such as Galactic Energy or Deep Blue Aerospace have developed kerolox engines for their VTVL rockets as well.

 

3) CAS Space Begins R&D on the ZK-2 Medium Lift Solid-Fueled Launch Vehicle

Jean’s Take

Chinese Academy of Sciences launch spinoff CAS Space announced that it had begun the design of its small-to-medium lift solid-fueled rocket, the ZK-2, in an interview with the China Daily on June 4th.  Now, the existence of the ZK-2 itself was already public information: CAS Space for example had shown a launch vehicle roadmap at the CCAF conference in October 2020, showing ZK-1, -2, -3 and -4 rockets.

Taking a step back here, CAS Space is a company going for a solid + liquid propulsion rocket strategy: the ZK-1 and ZK-2 are solid fueled, and ZK-3 and ZK-4 are liquid-fueled medium lift, VTVL rockets, bearing a resemblance with SpaceX’s Falcon-9/ Falcon-Heavy.

Up to now, we knew that CAS Space was mostly absorbed by the preparation of the inaugural launch of its ZK-1 small lift solid fueled rocket in September 2021.

The increasing attention that CAS Space is putting on the larger ZK-2 rocket is interesting in itself. The ZK-2 is quite a large rocket: it will have a core stage and two side boosters with a diameter of 2.65 m. It will be approx. 40 m tall, with a lift-off weight of 343 metric tons, and will be able to put 3.5t+ of payload into SSO.

This is a huge payload capacity for a solid rocket, and as mentioned by the China Daily article, this would make it by far the most powerful solid-fueled rocket in operation, the second being Arianespace’s Vega (1.5t into SSO, and future versions C and E at 2t+).

This is a significant difference in strategy compared to other Chinese commercial launch companies, which have all selected liquid-fueled propulsion technologies for their small-to-medium lift launch vehicles. Even Expace, a CASIC spin-off commercializing the Kuaizhou-1 and -11 series, has begun to talk about developing liquid-fueled rocket propulsion with the Kuaizhou-2 series.

Blaine’s Take

It will be interesting to see what market share the solid-fueled ZK-2 will be able to get, and if it will be able to compete with the liquid-fueled reusable rockets from companies like Landspace, iSpace or Galactic Energy. CAS Space is undoubtedly aware of the advantages of VTVL, and has also been developing (indirectly) its own liquid fueled rockets in parallel (ZK-3 and 4). CAS Space’s sister company XAPT, notably, is developing the Xuanyuan-1 kerolox engine, of which DFH has discussed in previous episodes several times. Last week, XAPT released a video with some nice visuals on the Xuanyuan-1. Nothing new, really, but the thrust of the engine (20 ton) makes it a good candidate for the future ZK-3 and ZK-4A rockets, which should have a payload capacity of 1.5t and 4t respectively.

Finally, a few interesting points about the interview which discussed the ZK-2. The interview was conducted with CAS Space Senior Rocket Scientist and Founder Yang Yiqiang, who mentioned several things of note. First, he explicitly mentioned that the ZK-2 would be more powerful than the LM-2C and 4B, and that ZK-1A would be more powerful than the LM-11. These may be factually correct statements, but nonetheless it is interesting to see someone explicitly comparing their rockets to CASC’s in a way that makes CASC’s look less capable. Also of note is the apparent target markets for the ZK-2 rocket–Yang mentioned two areas in particular, namely LEO constellations and CAS science/technology satellites, noting in the case of the latter that “the top science body wanted its own rocket research and production capabilities”. Last note–Yang specifically mentioned the company’s rocket manufacturing base in Guangzhou, the country’s “southernmost carrier rocket production facility”.

 

4) More details unveiled on the Tianzhou-2 spacecraft’s cargo

Jean’s Take

As we all know, the Tianzhou-2 spacecraft delivered 6.8 tons of cargo to the Chinese space station last week. Over the past few days, more information was unveiled on the Chinese Internet on what was on-board and how the cargo was packaged.

First of all, there are images that show the pressurized orbital module with 40 square-shaped compartments, which are used to house and protect the cargo during the entire launch phase.

An article by China Aerospace News mentions that there were 160 packages that were fitted inside. Among them were 2 spacesuits (the indigenous Feitian spacesuits) for EVA activities.These weigh 100+ kg each and took up together 8 of the 40 compartments.

There were also 5 bundles of 20 gas tanks containing precious gasses like oxygen, nitrogen. There were also a dozen water tanks for the use of the taikonauts. Ultimately, the article also mentions food, clothing, cleaning wipes, lao gan ma (老干妈, and not really) as well as some scientific payloads and some backup components for the space station. All of these bits and pieces were placed carefully inside the cargo module, taking into account the mass in order to keep the center of gravity of the spacecraft within the predefined limits.

The Tianzhou-2 spacecraft also carried 3.5 tons of propellant in 8 x 400L tanks, and of which 2.5 tons is meant to supply the space station. The cargo spacecraft also has two large solar arrays connected to lithium batteries; and it is able to provide additional power to the space station if required.

Blaine’s Take

Indeed, lao gan ma (老干妈).

This has been another episode of the Dongfang Hour China Aero/Space News Roundup. If you’ve made it this far, we thank you for your kind attention, and look forward to seeing you next time! Until then, don’t forget to follow us on YouTube, Twitter, or LinkedIn, or your local podcast source. 

Blaine Curcio has spent the past 10 years at the intersection of China and the space sector. Blaine has spent most of the past decade in China, including Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Beijing, working as a consultant and analyst covering the space/satcom sector for companies including Euroconsult and Orbital Gateway Consulting. When not talking about China space, Blaine can be found reading about economics/finance, exploring cities, and taking photos.

Jean Deville is a graduate from ISAE, where he studied aerospace engineering and specialized in fluid dynamics. A long-time aerospace enthusiast and China watcher, Jean was previously based in Toulouse and Shenzhen, and is currently working in the aviation industry between Paris and Shanghai. He also writes on a regular basis in the China Aerospace Blog. Hobbies include hiking, astrophotography, plane spotting, as well as a soft spot for Hakka food and (some) Ningxia wines.

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