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#SpaceWatchGL Column: Dongfang Hour China Aerospace News Roundup 21 – 28 February 2022

by Blaine Curcio and Jean Deville

Credits: Screenshot from the DFH show

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 21 – 28 February 2022. Welcome to another episode of the Dongfang Hour China Space Updates! I’m Jean Deville, joined as always by my co-host Blaine Curcio. In this episode, we discuss the growing importance of rideshare launches in China, but first let’s go over 3 future rocket concepts that China is planning for crew spaceflight over the next 20 years. 1) Three Chinese launch vehicles of the future: the traditional, the spaceplane, and the Starship Jean’s Take

Credits: Screenshot from the DFH show

This week, we got a glimpse at the rocket technology that China is developing for the next 20 years. A couple of days ago, on February 17th, was held in Beijing the International Symposium on Cooperation on near-Earth Orbit Human Spaceflight, organized by the Chinese Society of Astronautics and the IAF. While the conference in its entirety was interesting, one presentation stood out in particular: the one on China’s future launch technology for crewed spaceflight, and this was by Wang Xiaojun, the director of the Chinese Academy of Launch Technology (China’s largest state-owned launch company). Basically today, China’s crewed spaceflight program is reliant on 3 types of rockets:

  • The Long March 2F, a very old but very reliable rocket, which first flew in 1999 but is based on engine technologies that are 30-40 years old. It is in charge of launching the Shenzhou crewed spacecraft, shuttling taikonauts to and from the CSS.
  • The Long March 7: a new generation rocket (using more modern kerolox engines), which sends supplies the CSS by launching the Tianzhou cargo spacecraft;
  • And finally, the heavy-lift Long March 5B: which puts into orbit the larger pieces of space hardware like the Tianhe core module (last year) and the Mengtian, Wentian modules later this year.

But as we know, China’s future crewed missions are going to expand massively in the coming decade, mirroring to some extent the US. It has developed a much more massive crewed capsule, temporarily named the NGCV (Next Generation Crewed Vehicle), of which a prototype flew for the first time in 2020. As a sort of Chinese equivalent of Orion, this spacecraft will be able to shuttle up to 7 taikonauts to LEO (as opposed to 3 for the current Shenzhou spacecraft). It is also designed to enable deep space exploration, meaning that it will be used also for lunar missions and potentially other deep space missions. This bad boy will weigh anything between 14t to 23t, which is way beyond the payload capacity of China’s current human-rated rocket, the LM2F. And this brings us back to our Wang Xiaojun’s presentation, with the introduction of China’s first future rocket: sometimes called the Long March 5DY or the 921 rocket. This is a human-rated rocket using existing Chinese hardware (such as the YF100 engines), but it will at a much larger scale. It will be available in 2 versions: a plain 2-stage version carrying 14t to LEO (a significant improvement over the 8.2t of LM2F), and there will also be a 3 stage version with 2 side-boosters able to put 27t into LTO. As you can see on the picture, this is a human-rated rocket with an escape tower to pull taikonauts away from danger in case of an emergency, and it is likely that the rocket also has an increased number of redundancies.

Credits: Screenshot from the DFH show

So all of this is nice and makes sense, but we already had heard this from previous speeches last year, notably from the chief designer of the Long March rockets Long Lehtao in June 2021. Now the real scoop comes from the way the Chinese want to reuse the first-stage. The early stages of deceleration are aerodynamic and also employs a landing burn like the Falcon 9, BUT the actual landing isn’t with landing legs, it’s using a tethered recovery system where the stage would be caught by a net and thanks to a number of hooks. Beyond this Long March 5DY, China has been investigating two additional concepts. The first one is a Starship-like concept. And through this concept, It is impressive to observe the influence that SpaceX and Elon Musk continues to have on the Chinese space ecosystem, with many rocket companies having for example adopted similar solutions to F9/FH, and here we see CALT considering a Starship-like two-stage rocket. The rocket would be powered by LCH4/LOX, the second stage would perform aerodynamic deceleration at various angles of attack depending on the speed, including horizontal deceleration (0° pitch angle), before performing a belly flop and landing vertically, similar to Starship. So that’s for the 2nd stage, and the first stage would land vertically in a more classical way. Also, in separate renders shown last year, the rocket also appeared to go for an aluminum type alloy for its structure, like Starship. It will also be using methalox engines, CALT having identified liquid methane as the ideal fuel for reusable rockets. However it is not a Starship clone, there are some differences. CALT for example seems to be going for a much lighter version, able to put 20t into LEO rather than the 150t on Starship, and will be focused on cargo missions. It will also be using a seemingly more simple methalox engine, not a full-flow staged combustion cycle engine like Raptor.

Credits: Screenshot from the DFH show

Finally, China’s third rocket concept for future crewed spaceflight is a two-stage vertical take-off horizontal landing rocket, dedicated to sending taikonauts to the CSS, where both stages would be able to land horizontally. This concept matches well with past Chinese spaceplane tests, CASC (China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation) tested a spaceplane second stage in 2020 which was launched on-board a Long March 2F, and a first stage spaceplane which took off vertically in the summer of 2021. Basically both test spacecraft match pretty well with Wang Xiaojun’s description during the conference… More generally, China is probably now one of the rare countries in the world to still put a lot of hopes in this concept. They have repeatedly shown spaceplanes on their roadmap, and today there are at the very least 3-4 spaceplane projects going on at the moment. CASC’s arch-rival company CASIC (Chinese Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation) has notably been investing massively in this technology. They are developing the Tengyun spaceplane, which has two stages, which both take-off and land horizontally, and developing associated technologies such as combined cycle engines. Finally, there are also some commercial spaceplanes under development: iSpace is planning to develop a suborbital second stage spaceplane and an orbital second stage spaceplane further down the road. And then you have Space Transportation, a company that’s absolutely all in on spaceplanes, for Earth-to-Earth space travel. So overall this conference held in Beijing was really interesting, despite most of the information being already known. The reiteration of several concepts mentioned previously (Starship-like architecture, two-stage spaceplane) suggests that the Chinese are really serious about developing these at least to a prototype level. So Blaine, any thoughts on rockets or do you want to tell us about another interesting and growing trend of Chinese launch: rideshare? 2) Upcoming LM-8 Launch Showing China’s Rideshare Ambitions Blaine’s Take This week saw a number of posts from commercial satellite manufacturers, as well as CASC and subsidiaries, about the upcoming Long March-8 launch, to take place from Wenchang any day now.

Credits: Screenshot from the DFH show

One of the main talking points for the upcoming launch is the sheer number of satellites being launched by one rocket–22. For those following the global space sector for some years now, this number might seem pedestrian, given that SpaceX is now routinely launching 60x Starlink satellites per launch (and sometimes >100, when the payloads are smaller than the Starlink satellites). But it’s very easy to forget that the concept of many satellites on a single launch is relatively new, and that it is emblematic of the rapidly-changing commercial space industry. A review: Up until not much more than 10 years ago, most launches would be putting 1, 2, or sometimes 3 satellites into orbit. With a space sector that used to be dominated by GEO commsats, large navigation satellites, and other very big payloads, most rockets would have space for a larger, upper berth payload, and a smaller, lower berth payload, with both being several tons at least. The few launches that were not sending 3 or less satellites into orbit tended to be very specific launches–for example, the first generation of the Iridium constellation, launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s, sent 95 satellites into LEO. These 95 satellites were sent on 22 launches, i.e. ~4 satellites per launch, and a maximum of 7. While obviously not apples to apples (Starlink satellites are only ~40% the mass of Iridium ones), it’s nonetheless noteworthy that Starlink is currently launching 60x satellites per launch. In addition to the complexity of launching so much mass, there is complexity in successfully deploying 60x satellites. Now, as the space sector has become more mature, and as we’ve seen a miniaturization of all things satellites, we are in a new era of launch services. It is now conceivable to fit enough electronics into a 10kg satellite to do some serious research and development on-orbit, and a plethora of companies have emerged to help consolidate these small satellites into rideshare missions. This includes the direct launch vehicle operators, i.e. SpaceX, but then also companies like ExoLaunch, who pool satellites into rideshare launches and then buy the launch services themselves in bulk, earning a margin on the difference. Somewhat further down the value chain, you have a company like Nanoracks, that offers a variety of rideshare services. Which takes us to China. The commercial rideshare market in China remains less developed than the west, but it is evolving quickly. Historically, the closest thing that China has had to a dedicated rideshare company is, oddly enough, CGWIC. The commercial subsidiary of CASC is tasked with, among other things, conducting international business, and interacting with the Chinese commercial space sector. As CASC is the largest launch service provider in China by far, CGWIC ends up having quite a lot of rideshare services to sell. The clearest example of this was last year’s Zhuhai Air Show, which saw a flurry of agreements between Chinese commercial satellite manufacturers and CGWIC, many of which were for the upcoming launch.

Credits: Screenshot from the DFH show

The upcoming launch from Wenchang will feature 22 satellites, including 9x Jilin satellites from CGSTL, multiple satellites for MinoSpace, as well as satellites from Spacety, Wuhan University, and ADASpace. Notably, these are primarily commercial companies, and impressively, the contracts mentioned at the Zhuhai Air Show was only about 5 months ago, meaning that apparently, CGWIC/CASC have pulled together this ambitious rideshare in only a handful of months. Moving forward, we expect to see more LM-8, and eventually other rockets, performing rideshare missions, along with a variety of commercial rockets that are starting to come to fruition. The other commercial launch vehicles–developed by companies like Expace, LandSpace, iSpace, etc., have seen different methods of commercialization. In the case of Expace, we have seen CASIC subsidiary Huateng–a sort of equivalent to CASC’s CGWIC–playing a more active role in brokering commercial space agreements. At the same time, commercial launch companies have seemingly been marketing directly to customers, or in some cases partnering with companies such as Huateng (in the case of Galactic Energy). Overall, a lot of activity going on in China’s rideshare space. And just a final piece of rideshare news for the week, we saw an update on Saturday the 26th from commercial CALT subsidiary China Rocket about the company’s Jielong-3 rocket, and its multiple upcoming launches. Notably, this includes a planned August 2022 launch of the Jielong-3, which China Rocket specifically describes as being a commercial ride-share opportunity. As a reminder, China Rocket plans 3 Jielong-3 launches for H2 2022, followed by at least two more in H1 2023, with this expected to be China’s largest and most powerful solid-fueled rocket. And so, clearly a diverse variety of things planned to be launched into orbit by China over the coming years. As Jean covered earlier, a few different crewed rockets on the roadmap, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, an increasing number of technologies and launch vehicles developed for rideshare missions, aiming to enable lots of small satellites to be launched cheaply, flexibly, and reliably. Jean, anything from your side about the upcoming LM-8 launch, or China’s rideshare ambitions more generally?  Jean’s Take All of this reminds me of a launch of a Long March 2C back in late August 2021 last year, where we saw that the rocket had been adapted with new, wider fairings, and also included a new tube-shaped multi-satellite adapter structure to enable multiple satellite deployment. And so it seems that CASC is also looking to adapt older rockets like the Long March 2-4 series potentially for rideshare or for multi-smallsat deployment. And so that’s a wrap-up for this week’s episode. A special thanks to Hua Tuo, Frankie Cheng, STDMeow, as well as two anonymous patrons who have all gone over the past week to to make sure that we are never short of coffee. As always, a special shout-out to SpaceWatch.Global and GoTaikonauts, two excellent sources of space industry news. That being said, thank you for watching, and we will see you next week. 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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