HELSINKI — A Chinese launch vehicle maker is working on designs for an air-launched rocket for sending small satellites to orbit.

The system is being designed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) to deliver a payload of up to 300 kilograms to a 500-km-altitude sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

The three-stage air-launched rocket would weigh approximately 20,000 kilograms. It would fly on a carrier aircraft to an altitude of about 11.9 kilometers, reaching speeds of Mach 0.8 before being released.

The system is designed to provide “flexible, affordable and dedicated launch” for small satellites, according to an abstract submitted to Lyu Yan of CALT at the 74th International Astronautical Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan in October. 

CALT is a major rocket developer under China’s state-owned main space contractor, CASC. It is one of two entities, along with the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), which make Long March rockets.

Such a system would potentially provide China with a flexible and economical option for launching small satellites. It would be able to take off horizontally from runways and not require access to China’s spaceports. The latter are currently a bottleneck for Chinese access to space and growing demand for launch.

CALT earlier stated it is working on an air-launched rocket. It was reported to be working with Ukrainian companies on the project. Plans from 2017 note that a Y-20 strategic transport plane would be used in the system. The rocket which would have a payload capacity of 100 kg. A larger, 200 kg rocket was also mooted. Both would be solid-fuelled rockets.

The new design rocket offers a higher payload capacity and first stage reusability using an air rudder. “The air rudder recovery technology does not require the first-stage engine to have re-lighting and thrust adjustment functions, making it easier to design and manufacture,” according to the abstract.

“Based on a 10 times recovery, the recovery of the first stage booster sacrifices a payload capacity of 1kg to 2kg while reducing the economic cost by approximately 62% for each launch mission.”

Virgin Orbit notably developed an air-launch system, using its Cosmic Girl to deploy the small LauncherOne rocket. Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy earlier in 2023. 

China’s state-owned rocket makers and emerging Chinese commercial companies have been exploring a broad range of launch technologies. The developments are part of a wider effort to increase the country’s options and overall access to space.

These include the development of new solid rockets, new-generation human-rated launchers for lunar crewed missions and an evolving Long March 9 super heavy-lift launcher. There are also numerous potentially reusable commercial kerosene and methane-fueled launchers. 

Commercial entities have also experimented with forms of propulsion including pulse detonation and monopropellants. CASC is also developing a two-stage spaceplane concept. It uses a reusable VTHL suborbital first stage and a reusable spacecraft second stage.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...