China launch plans more than 70 launches in 2023

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HELSINKI — China’s state-owned and commercial space sector actors are planning a total of more than 70 launches across 2023 as the country’s space activities continue to expand.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s main space contractor and maker of the Long March rocket series, will again aim for more than 50 launches this year, according to an announcement from an early January meeting.

China launched 64 times in 2022. Combined launch plans of CASC and commercial actors could see the country top 70 launches this year from three inland spaceports, the coastal Wenchang spaceport and the Haiyang spaceport facilitating sea launches.

Among CASC’s major launches will be two Shenzhou crewed missions to the Tiangong space station and a supporting pair of Tianzhou cargo spacecraft. It will also carry out a range of civil, military, science and commercial missions.

The Long March 6C—a variant of the new Long March 6A minus its solid side boosters—will have its first launch this year. 

The Long March 5 will be in action again, having last flown in 2020 to launch Tianwen-1 to Mars and the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission. Its manufacturer, CASC’s China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), did not reveal what the flight would entail. 

The low Earth orbit (LEO) version of the rocket, the Long March 5B, will likewise fly again, having launched three space station modules across the past two years. 

It could carry the Xuntian space telescope to co-orbit with Tiangong late in the year, perform a test launch for sending large numbers of satellites into LEO for the country’s communication megaconstellation plan, or launch a new test of China’s new-generation crew spacecraft. The latter is designed to increase crew carrying capacity to LEO, while a larger, 21-metric-ton version will be used for future crewed lunar missions

The older hypergolic Long March 2, 3 and 4 series rockets are expected to be active regularly, as will the newer, kerosene-liquid oxygen Long March 7, 7A and 8 rockets. CASC recently announced a new production line for kerolox engines. The solid Long March 11 and Jielong-3 will also launch, both from land and sea. 

A failure of one of the mainstay rockets could greatly impact China’s launch rate in 2023. The last Long March failure occurred in April 2020.

China is expected to grow its Earth observation and reconnaissance capabilities further, continuing a high rate of launches of Yaogan and Gaofen satellites, while also launching replacement satellites for the Beidou GNSS constellation. Communications, meteorological and ocean observations satellites will also be part of the manifest.

Science missions will notably include the Einstein Probe in November and the Sino-French Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) in mid-2023.

State-owned spinoffs and commercial launches

CASC’s sister state-owned defense contractor, CASIC, and its subsidiary Expace are planning numerous launches of its solid Kuaizhou-1A and larger Kuaizhou-11 solid rockets following the pair both returning to flight last year. The launchers will likely carry satellites for CASIC’s Xingyun Internet of Things constellation and mainly commercial payloads.

CAS Space, an offshoot of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), will follow up the debut success of its Lijian-1 (ZK-1A) solid rocket with more launches this year. The first will target May.

Galactic Energy completed its first launch of the year in early January and, following a string of five successes from five attempts, is looking to launch 8-10 Ceres-1 solid rockets this year, including a possible inaugural sea launch in the second half of the year. Its kerolox Pallas-1 rocket is now expected to have its test flight in 2024.

The firm could help CAS spinoff CGST construct its Jilin-1 Earth observation constellation after launching five such satellites in November. CGST announced last fall that it intends to double the size of the constellation to 300 satellites by 2025.

Landspace could attempt a second launch of its Zhuque-2 methane-LOX launcher, after an issue with second stage vernier thrusters brought about the failure of the first launch last month.

Competitor iSpace could also return to the pad, working towards a test launch of the Hyperbola-2 reusable methalox launcher. It is unknown if the Hyperbola-1 solid rocket will be seen again, following three consecutive failures

Space Pioneer is expected to attempt its first launch this year with the Tianlong-2 kerolox rocket, as part of a trend of commercial Chinese liquid launchers moving towards test flights. 

Deep Blue Aerospace plans to build on a kilometer-level hop test conducted last year with a 100-kilometer-altitude test in 2023. Other newer entrants, Orienspace and Rocket Pi, could launch their respective Gravity-1 solid rocket and Darwin-1 methalox launcher this year also.