It will be China’s first independent attempt at an interplanetary mission, and comes with two ambitious goals. Launching in 2020, China’s Mars mission will attempt to put a probe in orbit around Mars and, separately, land a rover on the red planet.
The mission was approved in early 2016 but updates have few and far between. Last week, a terse update (available here in Chinese) from the Xi’an Aerospace Propulsion Institute, a subsidiary of CASC, China’s main space contractor, revealed that the spacecraft’s propulsion system had passed all necessary tests.
According to the report, the Shanghai Institute of Space Propulsion has completed tests of the spacecraft’s propulsion system for the hovering, hazard avoidance, slow-down, and landing stages of a Mars landing attempt. The successful tests verified the performance and control of the propulsion system, in which one engine producing 7,500 Newtons of thrust will provide the majority of force required to decelerate the spacecraft for landing.
The launch of an Earth observation satellite was watched by a predecessor already in orbit
Early on 5 June, China made the world’s first sea-based orbital launch in five years, sending a Long March 11 rocket toward orbit. Amazingly, the event was filmed by a satellite passing overhead.
The video shows, through cloud cover, the ignition and launch of a Long March 11 solid-fueled rocket from a specially converted platform in the Yellow Sea between China and the Korean Peninsula, at 04:06 UTC.
The spectacular footage was captured by a Jilin-1 video satellite. Though around 550 kilometers up and traveling at 7.9 kilometers per second, it was capable of ‘staring’ at the precise area in order to catch the dramatic event on the surface below.
Satellites in low earth orbit complete a lap around the planet once every 90 minutes or so, but don’t pass over the same areas each time, so the launch had to be coordinated with the satellite’s orbit in order to capture it.
“You need to make sure the launch is at the same time as the satellite pass,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “That may require small orbit adjustments for the satellite, but doesn’t need to be super precise.”
The Jilin-1 Earth observation satellite was one of nine in orbit made by Changguang Satellite Technology Co. Ltd., a commercial offshoot from the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics, and Physics (CIOMP) in northeast China, owned by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The Jilin constellation consists of optical and video Earth observation satellites that provide remote sensing data to clients for uses related to forestry, land use, shipping, natural resources, environment, and urban planning.
The company emerged after a 2014 Chinese government policy change to allow private capital into areas of the space sector, including small satellites and launch vehicles.
The government is facilitating the establishment of commercial and private space companies with the aim of developing new technology, driving innovation, and reducing costs for both civilian and military use, while also seeking to stimulate economic growth through space-related activities, including providing access to space, manufacturing satellites, or developing downstream applications, such as communications, geospatial products, and location-based services.
Aboard the 20.8-meter, 58-metric-ton Long March 11 were seven satellites, including another Jilin-1 high-resolution Earth observation satellite, taking the number of satellites in the nascent Jilin Earth observation constellation to ten.
The launch was China’s first attempt at a sea launch, a capability which will allow it to carry out launches at low latitudes, from which rockets heading into low-inclination orbits get a boost from the greater rotational speed of the Earth at the equator, helping them toward the 7.9 km/s velocity required to achieve orbit. This means reduced fuel requirements or the possibility of sending heavier payloads into orbit. Sea launches could also reduce the amount of rocket debris which falls on populated areas after launches from China’s inland satellite launch sites.
Views of the launch from the platform were also impressive, showing the Long March 11 being expelled from a launching tube before igniting in mid-air.
Updated to include more information about the Jilin satellite constellation.
Qian returned to China to become the father of the country’s space-launch vehicle and ballistic-missile programs and contributed greatly to the “Two Bombs, One Satellite” nuclear weapons and space project. And his efforts were not wasted—on 9 March of this year, the People’s Republic of China launched its 300th Long March rocket, which put China’s 506th spacecraft into orbit.
To do more exploration at a lower cost, the Chinese government has initiated policies aimed at establishing a private space industry like the one that exists in the United States, where companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab are bringing low-cost launch services to the space sector.
In 2014, China’s State Council issued a proposal called Document 60 that would open the nation’s launch and small satellite sectors to private capital. The government followed this announcement with helpful policies, including a national civil-military integration strategy to transfer crucial, complex, and sensitive technologies from state-owned space sector giants to startups approved by authorities.
Today, more than 10 private launch companies in China are working on launch vehicles or their components, and four are now prepared to make their first attempts to reach orbit.
Two Beijing-based companies, OneSpace and iSpace, are close to putting small satellites into orbit with their own rockets. The first OneSpace OS-M1 rocket failed around one minute after launch from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on 27 March and, at press time, the iSpace Hyperbola-1 was expected to follow up with its own attempt at Jiuquan as early as April. Both launch vehicles are relatively small and use a premixed solid combination of fuel and oxidizer, which is cheap, reliable, and simple to make but less efficient than liquid fuel.
LandSpace Technology Corp. made the first private Chinese orbital launch attempt in October using a solid-propellant rocket. After successful burns and separations of the first and second stages, a problem with the rocket’s third stage saw the Zhuque-1 rocket and its small satellite payload fall from an apogee of 337 kilometers into the Indian Ocean. It reached a top speed of 6.3 kilometers per second, just shy of the 7.9 km/s required to achieve orbit.
The company has moved on to develop a much larger and more capable two-stage launch vehicle powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen. It hopes to carry out the maiden flight of the Zhuque-2 in 2020 and plans to eventually make the rocket reusable, though doing so will reduce lift capability.
Meanwhile, LinkSpace Aerospace Technology Group, founded in 2014, has set its sights on building an orbital launch vehicle capable of vertical takeoff and landing, as demonstrated by SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The company wants to have a maiden flight of the liquid-propellant launcher NewLine-1 in 2021, after testing its NewLine Baby suborbital rocket throughout this year.
Lan Tianyi, founder of Ultimate Blue Nebula Co., a space consultancy in Beijing, says China’s launch companies each have different goals and capabilities. Some firms are focusing on developing launchers powered by solid fuel, while others opt for liquid propellants, which may allow the rockets to be reused. Some are also exploring creative options to provide space tourism services. “The whole launch-vehicle ecosystem is getting more and more complete,” he notes.
While Chinese firms race to reach orbit and score commercial contracts to launch constellations of remote-sensing and communications satellites, these companies will also help China drive down launch costs, and make more missions possible with fewer resources.
“If the entire world is moving in the direction of lower-cost, reusable, commercially driven launch systems, anyone who does not keep up with this development may find themselves out of the game,” says John Horack, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State University.
That these companies have come so far so quickly is an indicator of the level of state support for aerospace in China, and a sign that this mature industry is full of expertise. But the question of whether or not private launch firms are truly ready for takeoff can be answered only on the launchpad.
This article appears in the May 2019 print issue as “Private Rockets Ready for Liftoff in China.”
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