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 28 June – 4 July”.
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 28 June – 4 July 2021.
1) New Photos (and Videos!) from Zhurong
This week, we saw some welcome updates on China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission, from which we had last heard of on June 11 (with the famous Mars selfie). 16 days later, on June 27th, CNSA released a new series of Martian snapshots, which are fabulous as well.
- Probably the most impressive of them all is an extract of the footage from the descent phase. Basically the clip we are going to see filmed right after the capsule containing the Zhurong rover and lander had completed the atmospheric entry, which slowed down from the initial 4.8 km/s down to 460 m/s. At this point the capsule has lost 90% of its speed thanks to atmospheric drag, but cannot continue to do so due to stability reasons, and this is when the supersonic parachute is deployed. We can see the Disk-Gap-Band structure of the parachute, similar to the one used by NASA for the Mars 2020 mission.
Once the capsule has slowed down sufficiently, to subsonic speeds (around 100 m/s), the capsule then releases the lander and rover. This is what we can see on the footage, with the camera that’s installed on the lander and that’s pointing upwards towards the now empty capsule and parachute. And ultimately, we have a camera pointing downwards during the final retropropulsive landing phase.The footage is really absolutely amazing. If we do a quick comparison with the videos we got from NASA’s missions, I would put it on par with the MSL mission which put the Curiosity rover on Mars. I say this because MSL also had a camera called MARDI (Mars Descent Imager), filming the descent, at 4 fps.
However, it is significantly below the Mars 2020 mission which put the Perseverance rover on Mars, and which literally had an army of cameras, providing very high quality, 4K footage with cinematic frame rates. This is probably due to the fact that Zhurong is much smaller than Perseverance, and consequently has less room for the “cool but non-essential” camera payloads.
- The other images come from the disposable WiFi camera which was dropped some distance away by the Zhurong rover, and which took the famous Mars selfie a couple weeks ago. This same camera also took some video footage, with an impressive framerate, of Zhurong driving off, as well as performing a rotation.
- There is also an image from the hazard avoidance cameras, where we see the tracks left by the Zhurong rover (and btw you see the 中 mark again, left by the wheels).
- And as Zhurong drives away and puts significant distance (around 200-ish m) between itself and the lander, it took a beautiful high res panoramic image, where we can distinguish the lander at a distance, as well as the capsule and parachute which were discarded during the descent phase.
- Finally, the Zhurong rover also sent back to Earth a recording, which was taken when the rover was driving off the ramps of the lander. What you are hearing is the contact between the wheels and the ramp, and then the ground (and this is what is sounds like).
Zhurong is now entering its 8th week on Mars, it’s driven over 200m+, and now begins the real exploration phase, heading south.
2) LandSpace announces the completion of the first phase of the its small and medium rocket factory in Jiaxing
LandSpace announced completion of the first phase of its Jiaxing rocket factory, aimed at producing small and medium-lift rockets. The factory is their second in the Yangtze River Delta Region, with a large factory in Huzhou built in 2018. For an excellent deep dive on the Huzhou factory, we suggest our friends at GoTaikonauts, who went to the factory a couple of years ago.
LandSpace has built up quite a cluster in the Yangtze River Delta region, having hired more than 100 people in Huzhou and Jiaxing since the beginning of 2019, and another ~10-15 at the company’s R&D facility in Shanghai. The first phase of the Jiaxing facility appears to be massive, at around 40 acres. Noteworthy is also the fact that based on one of the photos, it seems their factory is surrounded largely by farmland, but also in the Jiaxing Aerospace Industrial Park. Quite a lot to unpack from the article regarding the development.
First, the article seems to be referring to both the LandSpace factory, and also to a larger industrial base plan that has been vaguely conceptualized for the Aerospace Industrial Park. The article notes that there will be a “cluster of upstream and downstream supporting industrial chain enterprises”, and also states that within three years of the project starting, “a carrier rocket assembly and test facility cluster will be formed, including a launch vehicle assembly plant, a semi-physical simulation laboratory, a comprehensive testing facility, rocket fuel tank production line, and a data management center”. The facility also aims to improve the digitization of LandSpace, including through different simulations for components of the rocket. The facility seems to be specifically aimed towards the Zhuque-2 rocket. In short, quite a big project in Jiaxing for LandSpace.
Taking a step back, LandSpace’s Jiaxing facility is located around 1.5hrs from their Huzhou facility, and is much closer to the coast (note: we do not have LandSpace’s Jiaxing address with 100% certainty, but this website did seem to have a good indication, so we used that). It’s also a little bit closer to Shanghai, where LandSpace appears to have a growing presence given the number of Shanghai-based job openings currently on the company’s website. That said, having scoured the Chinese internet for ~10mins, I cannot find their Shanghai address anywhere.
Finally, the article also noted that the facility would contribute to the broader Yangtze River Delta space sector, which will definitely be an area to watch in the coming years. Broadly speaking, China has 3 “tier 1 megalopolises”, with these being Jing-Jin-Ji (京津冀), the Greater Bay Area （大湾区), and the Yangtze River Delta (长三角). Each of these three areas has a population of 100M people or more, with a handful of large, developed cities in each one, and then a handful of mid-sized, still pretty developed cities. Of the three, Jing-Jin-Ji has had the largest space industry by far historically, and this is likely to continue given the centrality of Jing-Jin-Ji to SOE-related activity, and the extent to which China’s space sector will continue to be largely SOEs. That said, the Yangtze River Delta is developing quite a few space industry clusters that are worth keeping an eye on. In addition to LandSpace’s activities in Jiaxing and Huzhou, we have seen Rocket Group set up shop in Huzhou. Separately, Nanjing, Nantong, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Suzhou, among others, have started to develop space industry clusters with support from municipal governments, SOEs, and in some cases private investors. As we have noted before, such a large number of clusters may not be the most efficient way to develop a space economy, but it will likely lead to several very competitive companies arising from each cluster.
Indeed, an interesting update from Landspace, and with the strengthening of their rocket manufacturing capabilities comes the million-dollar question: when will Landspace test its emblematic ZQ-2 rocket? The ZQ-2 rocket is a small-to-medium lift rocket on which Landspace has been working for many years now, and with an inaugural launch planned in 2021, as far as public information is concerned.
Landspace hasn’t given any updates on if this launch date is on track, but they do give regular updates on what they are doing, which does give hints on the progress:
- In November 2020, we saw cryogenic plumbing systems being tested, in extreme thermal and vibration conditions, with special attention paid to durability and sealing.
- Early in 2021, we also saw Landspace complete a payload fairing separation test.
- Previously, we’ve seen some great footage of various engine tests Landspace has been doing in preparation for the ZQ-2 rocket:
- We saw multiple tests of the TQ-12, an 80t open-cycle LOX/CH4 engine, and notably a 2000s test run on January 2021. This engine will power the first stage in pairs of 4, providing 268t of thrust at lift-off according to Landspace.
- In March we also saw 4000s tests of the TQ-11, a much lighter 10t thrust engine, also LOX/CH4, with 4 nozzles. These 4 nozzles can be gimbled to a significant degree (up to 25°).
And they are an essential part of the Landspace ZQ-2 2nd stage, as we can see on this footage from June 2021, and where we have the TQ-11 used as Vernier engines, providing 3-axis control, and combined with a 80t TQ-12 engine in the middle providing the essential part of the thrust.
This looks similar to the Soyuz RD-108, or the YF-24 engine series used on the Long March 2, 3 and 4.
- In February 2021, Landspace completed the assembly of the 4 TQ-12 engines which compose the first stage of the ZQ-2. These are first signs of an actual ZQ-2 rocket assembly taking shape.
In a nutshell, a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes on the ZQ-2 rocket, but still no definite date. And it’s an absolute pity that borders with China are still closed, because Blaine and I were invited (sort of) to the inaugural launch, which is something we would have loved to share with our viewers.
Also, interesting article on Landspace’s Pintle injector used in its engines. Another article comparing YF-24 to ZQ-2’s 2nd stage engine
3) Update on Deep Blue Aerospace
Also some good stuff happening with Landspace’s fellow competitor Deep Blue Aerospace. Both companies are planning reusable rockets of comparable size (2t for ZQ-2 of Landspace, 4.5t for Nebula-2 of DBA). While Landspace has taken the approach of first launching expendable ZQ-2s and then making it reusable, Deep Blue Aerospace on the other hand is planning to make Nebula-2 reusable from day 1, meaning that it has to work on VTVL technology in parallel.
And namely, this means building a demonstrator called the Nebula-M, which is a tiny single-stage rocket that’s barely 7.3m tall, and that is to perform some hops, similar to what SpaceX’s Grasshopper did back in the day, or as China’s Linkspace did two years ago.
And it seems that we are getting very close to a first hop!
DBA had completed in late December 2020 a wet dress rehearsal for the Nebula-M, and last week they announced that they had completed preparations for a static fire test. The static fire test, the last test before the actual hops, would enable DBA to verify most parameters in an environment similar to operating conditions.
If this is successful, DBA will then move to meter level 100-meter level hops to verify VTVL technology.
And another launch company developing liquid rockets and with a focus in the Yangtze River Delta. DBA moved their registered HQ from Beijing to Nantong, Jiangsu Province, last year, having received significant funding from different Nantong-based funds. While the company’s staff likely remains largely in Beijing, they are believed to be expanding operations in Nantong, including building a rocket manufacturing facility in the city. A reminder that DBA is one of the 1-2 most impressive “second generation” launch companies, a term that is becoming increasingly unreliable and thus we must get our mileage out of it now. Having been founded at the very end of 2016 and having not raised any money until May 2018, DBA has had short but fast life as a company thus far.
DBA is also an example of a company founded by a commercial space industry “veteran”, such that they can exist in a commercial space industry that’s 7 years old. That is, DBA was founded by Huo Liang (霍亮), the former CTO of OneSpace. A reminder that another second-generation launch company, Tianbing Aerospace, has a very similar situation, having been founded by the former CTO of LandSpace, Kang Yonglai (康永来). A last note about DBA tying the company a bit more into the broader Yangtze River Delta theme–one of the company’s more recently-entered shareholders is the Ningbo Meishan Bonded Zone Fund, which is itself just across the water from Xiangshan County of Ningbo, where there may or may not be a commercial launch site being built.
Ultimately, one thing is for sure, the Yangtze River Delta space sector is moving and growing very rapidly.
4) Long March-2D Launches Jilin-01, XueErSi Satellites
On July 3 morning we saw a Long March-2D launch successfully from Taiyuan, carrying 2x Jilin-01 satellites from CGSTL, the “XueErSi” (学而思) satellite, built in collaboration between Beijing XueErSi Education Company, Commsat, and CGSTL, and a couple more satellites. A little bit to unpack:
The 2x Jilin-01 satellites are but the latest EO satellites launched by CGSTL. One of the satellites launched was developed in partnership with the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region for purposes including agriculture/crop monitoring, natural resource surveys, ecological and environmental monitoring, etc. The satellite is apparently the world’s largest sub-meter optical remote sensing satellite, capable of collecting more than 2 million sq. km of HD image data per day. The partnership with Inner Mongolia is yet another interesting example of CGSTL partnering with a city or province for individual satellites, while also presumably being able to use the same satellites for the broader purposes of their constellation. Bottom line, solid win for CGSTL.
The XueErSi satellite may be even more interesting. Digging a bit into the XueErSi company, it is apparently an education company that offers different courses, including quite a few related to space. Their satellite program was originally announced in April, and we can see that they have several levels of space classes, from very young kids (送梦想上太空, or “Deliver Dreaming of Space”), up to courses about satellite design for older people. The connection with Commsat is not so surprising, in that Commsat got its start doing space education-related things, but it is interesting to see the three-way collaboration between Commsat, CGSTL, and XueErSi. This is also a good example of actual commercialization of space, in that presumably, XueErSi will be able to somehow earn money off of this project.
Follow-up on the banner
Last but not least, for those who stayed until the end of the previous video, I just want to reveal that the odd man out of the new Dongfang Hour banner was…
Was of course the 3rd image of the first line, which was an illustration of Starlink satellites. I want to congratulate:
– Duya Taksis
– Terry Zha
– Tennis Guy
– Nicolas Xu
For finding the correct answer and posting in the comments.
Also, special mention to Duya Taksis, who actually went way beyond that and got the naming of all the images right, except Haiyang 2A which was confused with a Fengyun 3, but it was an artist rendering anyway and to be honest they do look somewhat alike.
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.