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#SpaceWatchGL Column: Dongfang Hour China Aerospace News Roundup 18 – 24 October 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 18-24 October 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 18-24 October 2021.

1) China tests most powerful domestic solid-fueled rocket engine to date

Jean’s Take

On Tuesday October 19, CASC’s 4th Academy, aka AASPT, tested a 3.5m-diameter 500-ton thrust solid-fueled rocket engine in their test facilities of Bailuyuan (白鹿原), Xi’an. The test run lasted a total of 115 seconds.

There are two things that make this update a noteworthy event:

  • The first one is the sheer size and power of this solid rocket booster. It has a diameter of 3.5m and 500 tons of thrust: this makes it the most powerful solid-fueled engine ever tested by China, especially as this one is a single cast/monolithic SRB.
    It’s worth noting that CCTV pointed out that this was the largest solid rocket booster worldwide, which is true if you consider monolithic SRBs that are in service. Otherwise you have historically the AJ-260-2 (1800 tons of thrust!!), and you have the SRBs of the SLS (at 1600 tons).
  • The other interesting point about this piece of news is that this highlights China’s ambition in solid-fueled propulsion in recent years. Solid fueled rockets have the advantage of being able to produce a high amount of thrust, presenting less complexity, and requiring less launch preparation. Yet looking back at China’s main rocket family, the Long March rockets, almost none (except the light-lift Long March 11) are solid-fueled. They all use various liquid oxidiser/propellant combos: UDMH/N2O4 for older generation Long March 2-4 rockets, kerolox and hydrolox engines for Long March 5-8. So this represents a major shift for China rocket design.

If we cover the origins of China’s efforts to develop (civil) solid-fueled launch vehicles, we can go back to China’s 11th Five-Year Plan. At the time in 2009, AASPT first developed and tested a 2m-diameter 120t thrust solid-fueled engine, which was later derived into the engine of the Long March 11, and this was the first solid-fueled Long March rocket ever, which performed it’s maiden flight in 2015. In 2019, it developed a 2.6m-diameter 200-ton thrust single casting solid-fueled engine, and in 2020, AASPT performed a 130s test-run of a 3.2m-diameter 260-ton thrust 3-segment solid-fueled engine. So the latest test of the 500t thrust SRB is in the continuity of this decade-long R&D effort.

Last point worth noting, despite 500t of thrust representing an unprecedented amount of power for an SRB for China, AASPT also mentioned that they plan to go even further and design a 5-segment 1000-ton thrust solid rocket engine, according to academy director Ren Quanbin in an interview to CCTV.

There is the question of which rockets are actually going to use these SRBs, as China’s Long March rockets are already using liquid-fueled engines.

On this topic, we know that the 120t Chinese SRB may be used as side boosters for the future Long March 6A, the only Long March rocket to combine solid and liquid propulsion. We also learned this week that the 200t and 500t engines are to equip the future Jielong-3 and 3A rockets, manufactured by a commercial spinoff of CALT called China Rocket.

Perhaps the only remaining area of uncertainty concerns the purpose of the future 1000t thrust solid-fueled engine. Several Chinese articles have hinted at deep space exploration. This doesn’t help us much, as we know that the future deep space exploration rockets, the Long March 5DY and Long March 9, should be using kerolox and hydrolox engines.

2) FOBS/hypersonic missile test

Blaine’s Take

Saturday saw a report by the Financial Times that China had launched a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile on an around-the-earth trajectory back in August. The report, citing 5 unnamed sources, claims that China launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle that “circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise”.

Before digging into the story, it’s important to note the ambiguity surrounding this event. The original FT article did not refer to any specific date, and a second article released by the FT later in the week described two tests, one of which was on 27 July and one of which was on 13 August (related: a report released in August by the China Aerospace Studies Institute described in great detail the 13th August launch). The Chinese response noted that they had tested reusable space-related technology in another launch….on 16 July. So, not a lot of clarity over which launch is which, and still a lot of unknowns.

What we do know is that according to the FT, China launched a rocket carrying a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), which itself carried a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle. These two technologies (FOBS and hypersonic gliders) are both meant to evade traditional missile defense systems. We also saw an unnamed source from the US policy establishment claim that the tests included some technology that the US does not have, which appears to “defy the laws of physics”.

An excellent webinar from the Foreign Policy Research Institute provided very thorough analysis on the test. Dr. Laura Grego of MIT noted that “with the information reported, nothing appears to be revolutionary, and the technologies as described are decades old”. Grego was also very, very skeptical of the idea that the test defied the laws of physics.

The first technology is FOBS. A fractional orbital bombardment system was initially conceptualized by the Soviets during the Cold War. The idea was that rather than using intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to deliver warheads, one could use FOBS. FOBS systems are different in several ways from traditional ICBMs. Traditional ICBMs are launched to >1,000km altitude, where they travel through space towards their target, never reaching orbital velocity. The trip would take tens of minutes, with nearly all of this time spent in the vacuum of space. Because the missile uses most of its fuel getting to orbit and then mostly “cruising”, its path for most of the time is relatively predictable, which allows for missile defense systems to make sense in the first place.

FOBS, on the other hand, fly much lower than ICBMs (~150km), but do reach orbital velocity, which allows them to have nearly unlimited range. By flying lower, they are also much better at evading radar. This is done at the expense of payload mass, as it requires a tremendous amount of energy to accelerate the FOBS to orbital velocity. The “fractional” part of FOBS is noteworthy from an international law perspective. In short, the Outer Space Treaty prohibits nations from stationing any nuclear weapons in space. By not doing a complete orbit, the FOBS can be legally argued as not being stationed in space.

The second technology that China has allegedly used during these tests is hypersonic glide technology, which, among other things, allows missiles to maneuver, making them harder to track. Hypersonic missiles travel at more than 5 times the speed of sound, or ~4,000 miles per hour. Hypersonic glide missiles would use the atmosphere to maneuver, taking advantage of aerodynamics and creating a higher degree of unpredictability of the missile path.

The US missile defenses are optimized for ICBMs, which are predictable and coming in fast, so something that is unpredictable and coming in slower can be a bigger threat. As well, missiles coming from the south (rather than over the north pole) can evade most of US’s sensing satellites that would normally pick up on heat from ICBM motors. As noted, neither of these technologies are new, but they are both significant from a missile defense perspective.

According to an Asian national security official, as well as a Chinese security expert with close ties to the PLA, the weapon in question was being developed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (also known as the 11th Institute of CASC). The FT article highlighted that CALT had announced its 77th LM-2C flight on 19 July, and its 79th on 24 August, without a 78th. Notably, CALT considers such missile launches as launches, even though they are not counted as launches by CASC.

The report from the FT triggered significant international reaction. Western analysts tended to think that China is either developing a new nuclear-weapon delivery system, or otherwise potentially a reusable space vehicle that would itself be applicable for weapons. James Acton of the Carnegie Institute noted that he suspects that “China  is following the Soviet Union’s lead in developing a so-called (FOBS). But I can’t rule out the possibility that China is developing a spaceplane, like the X-37B”. Overall, the western military reaction was primarily calls for increased investment into missile defense systems, with the US’s current Ground-based Midcourse Defense System being designed to intercept North Korean ICBMs.

For their part, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied the reports of China launching a hypersonic missile, with spokesperson Zhao Lijian claiming that China had launched a “routine test of a space vehicle to verify technologies of spacecraft reusability”, and that the test would have “great significance for reducing the cost” of space flights, as “part of the peaceful use of space for humanity”. According to Dr Grego in the earlier-mentioned webinar, “a test of reusable space technology” is a consistent description of that same basic technology–putting something into space, bringing it back down in a controlled and maneuverable way”. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that other Chinese media sources did not deny the test, and in one case almost celebrated the fact that Chinese technology was being taken so seriously by the west in this type of situation.

Interestingly, the week ended with a US Navy/Army joint hypersonic missile test on 20 October, which the US Navy characterized as a “vital step in the development of a Navy-designed common hypersonic missile, consisting of a Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGB) and a booster”.

3) A plethora of updates at China’s Space Exploration Forum in Shenzhen (and other deep space updates)

Jean’s Take

China’s 338th Engineering and Technology Forum took place from October 17 to 19 in Shenzhen. This is an event that takes place on a regular basis and on various science topics, and for the 338th edition, you probably guessed it, the theme was space-related, with a lot of interesting bits and pieces announced during the event.

More specifically, the 338th edition was named The Deep Space Exploration Science, Technology & Application Forum, and among the participants were the Chinese Academy of Engineering, CNSA, CLEP, CASC, as well as representatives from the municipal gov of the city of Shenzhen and the HIT Shenzhen campus.

Some of the interesting bits came from the keynote speeches on October the 18th, which were broadcast live. Let’s briefly recap some takeaways.

First of all, by listening to the presentations, you realize how serious China is about establishing a lunar base in the coming years, following the ILRS roadmap they announced in June 2021 As a quick reminder to our viewers, ILRS stands for International Lunar Research Station, a project that is co-led by Russia and China. The ILRS would have 3 phases:

  • A Reconnaissance phase (basically during the 2020s), which would aim at performing verification tests for key technologies required for a permanent station.
  • A Construction phase (between 2030 and 2035), to establish surface infrastructure for energy, communication and transportation purposes.
  • A Utilization phase (2036+) with the establishment of a larger scale presence, a focus on lunar research and exploration, and a regular presence of astronauts.

Among the keynote presentations related to this was a fascinating one by Guo Linli, a researcher at the Institute of 508 of the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST), an entity that is deeply involved in the design of China’s deep space exploration systems.

Guo Linli’s presentation and research focused on lunar ISRU, and more specifically on how to harvest ice on the Moon, a major resource that can be used to produce oxygen and hydrogen, which are necessary for a sustainable presence of life, but also useful as rocket fuel. Without going into too much detail, the presentation went over the problem of accessibility of the ice in the permanently shaded regions of the south pole (PSRs), the methods to melt and use the ice through chemical, solar and mechanical means, transportation, purification, and exploitation.

Another way to harvest oxygen on the Moon discussed in the presentation was through the processing of lunar regolith (dust), which is abundant on the surface and more accessible, and contains oxygen notably under the form of metal oxides. And this is where it gets most interesting. You can feel through the keynotes that Chinese scientists are very impressed by NASA’s MOXIE oxygen production experiment on Mars on-board the Perseverance Rover, and that China is very keen to get started on ISRU experiments themselves.

The scoop here is that Guo Linli stated that China should not fall behind, and proposed an oxygen extraction experiment on an upcoming Chang’e lunar spacecraft, using lunar regolith and employing a heating process to turn various oxides contained in the regolith into oxygen. She also mentioned that the secondary components produced by the extraction process could also be used as construction material, as shown by various simulations and tests performed by her Institute. While this mission seems to be only at the state of a proposal, it seems very likely that such an experiment will be a priority for China’s next lunar missions. ESA, NASA, and Russia all have multiple ISRU missions planned, adding additional pressure on China to speed up.

Without wanting to go into too much further down this rabbit hole, we had:

  • Beihang University present research on the design of synthetic lunar regolith on Earth, and comparing it with actual samples returned from the Moon, and the 3D printing properties.
  • Collaborative study between CASC and Hunan University on the establishment of a sustainable power network and energy storage strategy on the Moon
  • Earth observation with lunar-based instruments (study by Shenzhen University)

One side note: it’s fairly easy to realize that many of these studies are explicitly in the scope of the 5 ILRS objectives stated in the ILRS handbook copublished by China and Russia, notably ILRS 3 and ILRS 5.

There was also a lot of talk about Mars, notably one presentation discussing the Mars opposition that just passed a couple of days ago, during which Mars, the Sun and the Earth are aligned and so the Sun blocks or interferes with Mars-Earth signals, meaning that Zhurong was powered down during a couple of weeks.

Another part of the presentation further detailed China’s future Mars sample return mission, which would seemingly take place around 2030, and would consist in a succession of 2 launches: one rocket that looks like a LM5 that would send a lander and ascent vehicle that would perform the sample extraction; and a separate launch of the return vehicle on-board what looks like a Long March 9, and which would dock with the ascent vehicle at some point. Pretty cool stuff, we are now awaiting further details.

Finally, the Institute of Space Sciences of Shandong University revealed that they were working on a method of extracting oxygen from CO2 on Mars, called glow discharge. This method is a different method from the one used by MOXIE on NASA’s Perseverance rover. As far as I understand, MOXIE splits CO2 into CO and O (to avoid the formation of carbon residue), while Glow Discharge produces carbon and oxygen. According to the researcher Wu Zhongchen, Glow Discharge has the advantage of requiring less power (doesn’t need to high thermal conditions of MOXIE), and is adapted to working with low atmospheric pressure (which is the case on Mars). GD still needs to be field-proven so we’ll have to wait and see if these claims are correct or show some discrepancy.

This has been another episode of the Dongfang Hour China 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. 

This has been another episode of the Dongfang Hour China 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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