HELSINKI — China’s main space contractor is developing launch vehicles capable of learning and adapting as well as multiple technologies for recovering and reusing rockets.

China will develop a first launch vehicle capable of vertical takeoff, vertical landing by 2025, Wu Yansheng, a senior official with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), said at a major conference (Chinese) in Chengdu, southwest China Nov. 3.

Wu, presenting on the prospects for space transportation system development, also stated that CASC is working on rockets capable of learning and acting autonomously. 

The efforts, involving the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), one of two major launch vehicle entities under CASC, would see existing launchers upgraded to be capable of making adjustments to changes in, for example thrust, and returning data to the ground for the benefit of future missions. Tests involving the Long March 2C are expected in the near future.

According to media reports the “intelligent” rockets would carry guidance, navigation and control systems capable of reacting to multi-source information including flight status, trajectory and environmental conditions.

Statistics were offered claiming that from 1990 to 2000, about 40% of launch vehicle failures in Europe, US, Japan, and Russia could have been avoided through advanced GNC technology, allowing the mission to be completed or remedied to prevent complete failure, such as entering alternative orbits.

Wu said 2035 would already be the era of smart launch vehicles. Wu underlined launch capacity, reliability and safety, launch costs and development efficiency as four dimensions to evaluate China’s capabilities with regards access to space.

Vertical takeoff, vertical landing

CASC’s first VTVL launcher was expected to be the Long March 8, a new liquid kerosene-liquid oxygen launcher which builds on technology developed for the Long March 7. Animations suggest the first stage will land on a sea platform with side boosters still attached.

A first flight model of the Long March 8 is believed to have arrived at Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan island late last month.

This first launch will however be an expendable version of the potentially reusable Long March 8. Wu’s timeline of 2025 for realizing VTVL capabilities suggests CALT has much work remaining, or is referring to another vehicle, such as a large three-core launcher for human spaceflight missions.

Wu also made no mention of the ‘reusable experimental spacecraft’ which was secretively launched and landed in September.

Further Chinese recovery, reusability efforts

Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), the second of two major launch vehicle manufacturers belonging to CASC, is also developing a reusable version of the Long March 6.

CALT is also looking seriously at aerial recovery of first stages, something tested and abandoned by SpaceX but soon to be tested by Rocket Lab. 

The proposed Chinese system involves deployable aerodynamic deceleration, helicopter aerial retrieval, intelligent hooking system design and reentry vehicle separation technologies. 

Authors of a paper presented at the recent IAC claim that results of tests indicate that aerial recovery has many advantages compared to propulsion-landing and sea-landing recoveries, including non-damage, precision, speed and flexibility. A flight test is being considered “as soon as possible”.

Commercial efforts

Chinese commercial space launch companies could beat the so-called ‘national team’, referring to state-owned CASC and state-owned space actors, to VTVL launchers however.

Beijing-based Landspace and iSpace are developing methalox rockets capable of landing using variable thrust engines. The latter plans hop tests in 2021 followed by a first launch of its Hyperbola-2 rocket. First launch of Landspace’s Zhuque-2 is currently expected mid-2021, but its first launch will be expendable. 

Linkspace, another firm working on such technologies, has been quiet since a 300-meter hop test in August 2019.

Galactic Energy, the front runner of a second wave of prospective Chinese commercial launch service providers, is also developing a reusable launcher. The kerolox Pallas-1 is slated for a test launch in late 2022. 

The firm will make its first orbital launch attempt early Saturday from Jiuquan with the solid Ceres-1 rocket. 

Galactic Energy this week also announced that it recently secured $21.5 million in a funding round.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.