HELSINKI — China’s main state-owned contractor plans test flights for two new large diameter reusable rockets in the next couple of years, despite existing commercial reusability efforts.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) plans to launch four-meter and five-meter-diameter reusable rockets for the first time in 2025 and 2026 respectively, Wang Wei, a deputy to the National People’s Congress, told China News Service March 4.

The reports do not clearly identify the two rockets. CASC is known to be developing a new, 5.0m-diameter crew launch vehicle, known as the Long March 10. A single stick version would be used to launch a new-generation crew spacecraft to low Earth orbit and could potentially fly in 2025. A three-core variant will launch the “Mengzhou” crew spacecraft into trans-lunar orbit. 

The rocket is key to China’s plans to put astronauts on the moon before 2030. The Long March 10 lunar variant will be 92 meters long and be able to launch 27 tons into trans-lunar orbit. 

The 4.0-meter-diameter launcher could be a rocket earlier proposed by CASC’s Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST). That rocket would be able to launch up to 6,500 kg of payload to 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). It would notably use engines developed by the commercial engine maker Jiuzhou Yunjian.

CASC’s first move to develop a reusable rocket centered on making a recoverable version of the Long March 8. That plan appears to have been abandoned. SAST also plans to debut the 3.8m-diameter Long March 12 later this year from a new commercial launch site.

While the Long March 10 has specific, defined uses for lunar and human spaceflight, the second reusable rocket would appear to be in competition with China’s commercial rocket companies. While this suggests duplication of effort, it also fits into a national strategy to develop reusable rockets and support commercial ecosystems. The moves would greatly boost China’s options for launch and access to space. It would also provide new capacity needed to help construction planned low Earth orbit megaconstellations.

Wang told reporters that CASC has been leveraging its complete industrial chain and advantages in technology, products, talent, infrastructure and other aspects to promote the development of China’s commercial space industry in recent years.

CASC will also increase the openness and sharing of large-scale test facilities such as rocket engine test benches. It will also participate in the construction of commercial launch sites, and provide other infrastructure to support commercial launches, according to Wang.

Rong Yi, with the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) under CASC, separately told Science and Technology Daily, an official ministry newspaper, that China’s progress on reusable rockets has been steady in recent years. She stated that key technological issues had been overcome one by one and that the overall progress is very smooth.

That report stated that CASC is accelerating the development of products adapted to the commercial space market. It is making breakthroughs in reusable launch vehicle technology, and promoting the technological upgrading of space transportation systems. It is also developing the YF-209 methane-liquid oxygen reusable engine for commercial users.

A number of Chinese commercial rocket makers are planning and conducting small-scale hop tests. These are steps towards larger, reusable launch vehicles due to debut in the near future. 

Landspace, Space Pioneer, Galactic Energy and iSpace are among companies working towards expendable flights of launchers that could be made reusable in the future. Meanwhile Deep Blue Aerospace could make its first orbital launch and recovery attempt later this year.

CompanyRocket NameRocket TypeKey Features or Notes
iSpaceHyperbola-3Methane-liquid oxygen reusablePayload capacity of 8,500 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO); first flight planned for 2025.
LandspaceZhuque-3Methalox reusablePayload capacity up to 21,000 kg to LEO; first flight planned for 2025.
Galactic EnergyPallas-1Kerosene-liquid oxygen reusablePayload capacity of 5,000 kg to LEO, or 3,000 kg to a 700 km sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).
CAS SpaceKinetica 2Kerolox reusablePayload capacity of 7,800 kg to 500 km SSO.
Deep Blue AerospaceNebula-1Kerolox reusablePayload capacity of 1,000 kg to 500 km SSO; first flight planned in late 2024.
Space PioneerTianlong-3KeroloxComparable to Falcon 9 in launch capability; plans for a reusable first stage.
OrienspaceGravity-2Kerolox25,600 kg to LEO. First flight in 2025; plans for a reusable first stage.
CASCVariousVariousWorking on reusable rockets including a new-generation human-rated launcher, spaceplane, and Long March 9 super heavy-lift launcher.
Non-exhaustive list of planned Chinese reusable rockets.

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...