HELSINKI — China is looking to greatly expand its satellite launch capacity by mass producing a medium-lift rocket to help build a communications megaconstellation.
China is developing its plans to deploy a 13,000-satellite low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband megaconstellation, sometimes referred to as “Guowang,” or national network, to rival Starlink and other Western ventures. The country’s military has claimed that SpaceX has intended for Starlink to be used for military purposes in the wake of Ukraine’s defense against the invasion of Russia.
China is expected to launch the first satellites for Guowang later this year, but currently lacks the capacity to build out the entire constellation in a timely manner.
Now, China is building production and testing facilities as well as new launch pads at Wenchang spaceport on Hainan island to enable a much greater launch cadence for new rockets.
The Long March 8 set a national record of 22 satellites on a single launch in February 2022 as a commercial carpooling test. But it also verified its use for launching batches of satellites.
“To put it simply, we have hammered out a ‘carpooling’ solution to launch many small satellites in one successful launch mission ,” Xiao Yun, chief commander of the Long March 8 rocket program, told CCTV ahead of the launch.
The launch can now be seen as an early move as part of a concerted effort to get China’s megaconstellation project off the ground.
The South China Morning Post last week reported progress on pulse production and assembly facilities near Wenchang. This will eventually have an annual output of 50 Long March 8 rockets.
Meanwhile, work continues on the new pads at Wenchang and is expected to host first launches next year. A Xi’an-based facility is also ramping up production of the YF-100 kerosene-liquid oxygen engines which power many of China’s newer rockets, including the Long March 8.
A plan to scale up the use of the Long March 8 has long been hinted at. Pan Aihua, chief engineer at the China National Space Administration (CNSA), told state media in 2022 that China is, “accelerating its satellite project, which means a sharp increase in the number of satellites to be launched in the future, and the modified model of the Long March 8 carrier rocket will be of great significance in improving the launch efficiency.”
The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) is also considering a larger version of the Long March 8, referred to as the 8G. It would use a pair of upgraded hydrolox engines on a widened second stage, allowing an increase in payload capacity to SSO (6,400 kilograms) and a larger 5.2-meter-diameter fairing for encapsulating greater numbers of satellites.
Researchers have also looked at launching the Long March 8 from sea launch facilities at Haiyang, on China’s eastern coast, to ease launch congestion.
CASC, the country’s main space contractor, was planning to use the Long March 8 as a test bed for reusability, but such plans have not been noted in recent times. Instead, the approach may rely on mass production of the low-cost, expendable medium-lift Long March 8.
A Long March 5B is being modified for a first launch of a cluster of satellites to low Earth orbit, having fulfilled its main role of launching modules to construct China’s Tiangong space station. The Long March 5B can deliver up to 25 tons to LEO, but mass producing the 53.7-meter-long, five-meter-diameter rocket is challenging. The Long March 8 will provide another avenue.
CASC subsidiary CAST and Microsat under the Chinese Academy of Sciences are understood to be contracted to manufacture satellites for Guowang. Meanwhile, private firm Galaxyspace is expected to launch its first flat panel antenna satellites with flexible solar arrays in the second half of the year.
The satellites, which would be stackable in a similar fashion as SpaceX Starlink satellites, could be part of the Guowang project.
China’s commercial launch companies have also noted the possibility of gaining contracts to launch satellites for Guowang, indicating that the country is looking to leverage its commercial sector to get the project in orbit.
The state-owned enterprise managing the Guowang project is meanwhile undergoing inspection by a top government body. It is unclear what the development involves or why it was triggered, or if the process is a more routine ideological procedure or result in punitive measures.