HELSINKI — A newly-completed launch pad on China’s Hainan island could increase China’s access to space, boosting national constellation projects and commercial launch plans.
The first launch pad at Hainan Commercial Launch Site was completed Dec. 29. It is the first of two pads which will host liquid propellant launch vehicles.
The development will ease a bottleneck of access to launch facilities for both national and commercial launch service providers and allow Chinese entities to speed up plans to launch a range of constellations. It will also increase China’s ability to deploy and maintain space assets, including remote sensing, communications and other systems, for civil and military purposes.
The new launch pads could help China to transition away from older hypergolic rockets. It could help reduce incidents of booster debris falling around inhabited areas following launches from the country’s inland spaceports of Jiuquan, Taiyuan and Xichang.
A first launch from the pad is expected in the first half of 2024. The next expected Long March 8 launch will be the Queqiao-2 lunar relay satellite. That mission is a prerequisite for China to launch the Chang’e-6, a first-ever lunar far side sample return mission.
Hainan Commercial Launch Site is located near the coastal national Wenchang spaceport on the island province of Hainan in the South China Sea. The latter opened in 2014 and hosts launches of China’s new, large kerosene-liquid oxygen rockets, most notably the Long March 5 series.
Despite its proximity to the national spaceport, the new Wenchang site is considered China’s fifth launch site. The country additionally has sea launch facilities on the coast of the Eastern province of Shandong.
The newly-completed Pad 1 is specifically dedicated to the Long March 8, a newer, kerolox medium-lift rocket, developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), China’s main space contractor.
Previously revealed efforts to mass produce the Long March 8 are linked to China’s plans to construct its 13,000-satellite low Earth orbit broadband megaconstellation.
The pad will ease a bottleneck which saw the Long March 8 need to use Wenchang spaceport, which is focused mainly on major civil mission launches involving the Long March 5 and 7 series rockets.
China’s launch rate has grown rapidly in recent years, from a national record 22 in 2016, to 55 in 2022 and 67 in 2023. CASC’s overall launch rate dropped from 2022 to 2023 however, as commercial actors accounted for 17 of China’s orbital launches. CASC also continued to rely on older Long March 2, 3 and 4 series rockets which use toxic, hypergolic propellant.
The country will need to greatly increase its launch rate above this background growth to construct the “Guowang” constellation.
SpaceNews understands that China made filings to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for Gouwang in 2020. It will need to launch the first satellites using all the frequencies to be brought into use by 2027, and launch 10% of the total number of satellites launched by September 2029. Half of the satellites for the constellation will need to be launched by September 2032. Deployment of the constellation is to be completed two years later.
Meanwhile a Shanghai-based company is also planning another 10,000-plus LEO constellation. The first satellite for the G60 constellation rolled off production lines in December.
Second pad to host “XLV” launcher
A second commercial launch pad is still being constructed on Hainan. It is expected to be completed by the end of May this year. The first launch from that pad will be the “XLV” rocket developed by CASC’s Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST).
Little has been revealed about the new launcher. There are indications that it could be a 3.8-meter-diameter rocket using four YF-100K kerosene-liquid oxygen engines.
Pad 2 is described by a social media channel for the new launch site as a universal pad. The new pad will be able to accommodate 19 different launch vehicles. The two Chinese commercial liquid propellant launchers to fly so far—Zhuque-2 and Tianlong-2—have launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, northwest China.
At least nine manufacturers are thought to be set to utilize the facilities. These include CASC subsidiaries and commercial entities including iSpace, CAS Space and Deep Blue Aerospace. The latter aims to launch its first Nebula-1 reusable rocket from the pad in late 2024.
The new facilities could also help reduce costs, according to launch site officials. “The site was built with strong launching capabilities, as it is expected to put several dozen or even over 100 satellites into orbit each year,” Guo Qiang, director of the Hainan International Commercial Aerospace Launch Co., Ltd., told China Central Television (CCTV). “Beyond that, we are focusing on lowering the costs as the satellites can form a constellation with reduced costs.”
A groundbreaking ceremony for a third pad for hosting solid rocket launches took place in June 2023. The planned construction period was 180 days. Most commercial solid rocket launches have been conducted at Jiuquan. Other launches have taken place using the Haiyang sea launch facilities.
Progress on another planned commercial launch site, near Ningbo in Eastern China, had apparently stalled. A December update suggests however that the project is still active. Local officials visited Hainan commercial spaceport to learn lessons from its construction.