China plans more than 50 space launches in 2022

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HELSINKI — China’s main space contractor aims to launch at least 140 spacecraft across more than 50 launches in 2022 following its busiest year in space so far.

The updated target, coupled with the launch plans of other Chinese state-owned enterprises and new private firms, means China could potentially exceed 60 launches in 2022.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation revealed the plans in an annual ‘blue book’ on space activities, released Feb. 9.

CASC in early January stated plans to launch more than 40 times and has conducted two launches so far.

CASC’s major missions will include six launches to complete the construction phase of the Tiangong space station. The Tianzhou-4 cargo spacecraft will launch following the end of the Shenzhou-13 mission in March, in order to support the next three-person crew launching on Shenzhou-14.

The Shenzhou-14 astronauts will be aboard Tianhe core module for the arrival of the 20-metric-ton-plus Wentian and Mengtian modules, both now expected to launch in the second half of the year, later than earlier tentative times of June and August respectively. 

The module launches will complete the T-shaped orbital outpost. Tianzhou-5 will launch ahead of Shenzhou-15, both scheduled for late in the year. 

Work on the Long March 2F, Long March 5B and Long March 7 rockets for launching Shenzhou, space station module and cargo missions respectively continued during the recent Lunar New Year holiday, according to CASC.

The module launches will be followed closely, partly due to the significance of the missions, but also because of the use of the Long March 5B, the two previous launches of which saw the large first stages make high-profile uncontrolled reentries which sparked acrimony.

The rocket maker, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), says it has further optimized the two new Long March 5B rockets to ensure mission success without providing details.

The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), a major CASC subsidiary, held a mobilization meeting Tuesday ahead of the first launch of the Long March 6A. The rocket was delivered to the Taiyuan spaceport in late January and will be China’s first use of a liquid propellant rocket paired with solid rocket boosters. 

The second Long March 8, this time without its two side boosters, is being prepared for a late February launch from Wenchang and will be a second “Long March express” commercial rideshare mission. The coastal spaceport will also host the space station module and cargo spacecraft launches this year.

CALT says it will launch 4-5 Long March 11 solid rockets during the year, without specifying if launches will take place from land or sea. The new Long March 7A, a likely successor to the aging Long March 3B, is expected to launch two times.

CASC will also focus on development of the fourth phase of China’s lunar exploration project, including the Chang’e 6 and 7 missions targeting the lunar south pole, and a combined asteroid sample-return and comet rendezvous mission.

Commercial launch plans

Meanwhile other actors are gearing up for launches of new rockets. Landspace, one of China’s first private launch firms, is currently preparing to launch its new methane-fueled Zhuque-2 rocket at the national Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Competitor iSpace is preparing to launch its fourth Hyperbola-1 solid rocket after two consecutive failures and could launch its own, methane-liquid oxygen launcher, Hyperbola-2, this year.

Space Pioneer stated recently that it aims to launch its first kerosene-liquid oxygen Tianlong during 2022, having earlier focused on developing monopropellant engines. Galactic Energy plans around five launches of its light-lift Ceres-1 rocket in the second half of the year.

Expace, a spinoff from state-owned CASIC, has plans to launch its Kuaizhou-1A and 11 rockets, however both are currently grounded following failures in late 2021 and 2020 respectively. 

CAS Space, a spinoff from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, plans to conduct its first launch during the first quarter with the ZK-1A solid rocket. China Rocket, spun off from CASC, states it will launch the first Jielong-3 solid rocket during 2022.

China’s 2021 in space

The CASC document mainly focuses on activities during 2021. China launched 55 times in 2021, sending 115 spacecraft and 191.19 metric tons  into orbit. Of these, 41 launches headed to low Earth orbit and 14 to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Overall 2021 was the busiest year in terms of launches—with 146 orbital launch attempts—since the dawn of the Space Age in 1957.

While China led the United States (51) in terms of launches, the latter sent a much greater mass (403.34 tons) and more spacecraft (1,335) into orbit, according to the CASC statistics, with SpaceX and its Starlink constellation accounting for a vast amount of U.S. activity.

In 2021 China launched its first space station module, two cargo spacecraft and two crewed missions. Its first independent interplanetary mission, Tianwen-1, entered Mars orbit and landed the Zhurong rover on the Red Planet. 

Of the 55 Chinese launches in 2021, 48 were Long March launches. All of these were successful, sending 103 spacecraft into orbit, though the fate of Shiyan-10 remains ambiguous. Exapce launched four Kuaizhou-1A rockets, with the last ending in failure and potentially bringing further significant delays to its commercial launch plans

Private firm iSpace launched two Hyperbola-1 solid rockets, both ending in failure. Competitor Galactic Energy successfully launched its own Ceres-1 solid rocket in December. 

China also recently released a new space white paper, providing insight into plans across the period 2021-2026. The document outlined goals related to technology, propulsion, exploration, commercial space and approaches to international cooperation, space debris and more.