PARIS — A major branch of China’s state-owned space contractor plans to develop a series of partially and fully reusable launch vehicles, apparently in response to SpaceX’s Starship.
A paper published in the journal Aerospace Technology describes the plans envisaged by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) for a number of launch vehicles of different diameters and groups of methalox engines.
A first generation of three launchers with reusable first stages would have diameters of 3.35, 4.0 and 7.0 meters, powered by groups of five, seven-nine and 9-22 “Longyun” 70-ton engines of thrust. The second stages would use versions of the engine optimized for vacuum.
The 3.35m version is to be capable of lifting 2,500 kilograms into a 700 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), while the 4.0m variant, a size chosen to reach the maximum that can be transported to the sites of China’s domestic launches, could launch up to 6,500 kg of payload into a similar orbit.
The 7.0 meter version is planned to be able to launch more than 20,000 kg 700 km SSW, while requiring new launch facilities and an offshore platform to recover the first stage.
The document says the technologies needed for a first generation of reusable launch vehicles, including grid fins, navigation guidance and control, and reusable, restartable engines, have advanced to the point of being ready for flight demonstrations. . The tests would include low-speed, low-altitude flights, up to launches at the 100 kilometer level.
Although not explicitly stated, the 70 ton thrust open cycle Longyun engines correspond to a product of the same name and capacities developed by the private company Jiuzhou Yunjian. This would be a notable example of a public entity using a private company for the engines.
China opened up part of its space business to private capital at the end of 2014, leading to hundreds of companies entering the sector. A number of companies have developed methane and liquid oxygen rocket engines for their own launch vehicles, including Landspace and iSpace, but Jiuzhou Yunjian has focused solely on engines.
The company signed a OK in October 2021 to supply its smaller Longyun and Lingyun engines to launch vehicle manufacturer Rocket Pi for its Darwin-1 launch vehicle.
The proposed launchers would also offer a different path to develop new launch capabilities in China, separate from those developed by the Beijing-based China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).
SAST and CALT are two major institutes of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s main space contractor. Both produce Long March launchers, offering different launch capabilities but also a level of competition.
CALT manufactures the large Long March 5 and 7 kerosene-liquid oxygen rockets and also develops the super heavy kerolox Long March 9. CALT managers also presented reusable product concepts, metalox launchers and a methane engine version from 9 Long March.
SAST is also eyeing a second-generation methane rocket whose two stages would be reusable and capable of delivering 100,000 kg into low Earth orbit.
The rocket would be 9 to 10 meters in diameter, similar to the Long March 9, and would use closed-cycle engines of 25 to 28,200 tons of thrust on its first stage. The second stage would feature 6-9 engines.
China has explored many ways to increase its access to space in recent years, including a range of solid propellant rockets and reusable liquid launchers from the public sector, as well as privately developed capabilities.
China’s first methalox rocket, Zhuque-2 developed by private company Landspace, is expected to launch from Jiuquan in the near future.