HELSINKI — China is planning a national record 100 orbital launches in 2024, according to the country’s main space contractor. 

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) plans around 70 launches to send more than 290 spacecraft into orbit. The remaining launches will be performed by China’s growing commercial launch sector. 

The plans are outlined in CASC’s annual “blue book,” released Feb. 26. The document does not provide a full launch manifest nor a detailed schedule, but offers an overview of planned activities.

Major missions include two crewed and two cargo missions to the Tiangong space station. The first half of the year will see the launch of the Queqiao-2 lunar relay satellite and Chang’e-6, a first-ever lunar far side sample return mission. 

Other priorities noted include work on the country’s crewed lunar landing plan, targeting putting astronauts on the moon before 2030. Deep space exploration, geostationary radar satellites, the development of a new crew spacecraft and the Tianwen-2 (2025) near Earth asteroid and Chang’e-7 (2026) lunar south pole missions are also noted. 

Further notable missions include an ocean salinity detection satellite, the Sino-Franco Space-based multi-band astronomical Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM), Einstein Probe, the China Seismo-Electromagnetic Satellite-2 with European collaboration, and the retrievable Shijian-19 space science satellite. There will also be debut flights for the Long March 6C and Long March 12 rockets. 

The planned 100 launch figure is a significant rise on the national record-setting 67 launches in 2023. CASC conducted 50 of these, with 17 performed by commercial actors. CASC targeted launching more than 60 times in 2023, according to a January 2023 statement, meaning it fell well short of last year’s goal.

New sea and commercial spaceports at Haiyang and Wenchang respectively will help facilitate the planned launch rate growth. CASC also says it aims to complete multiple commercial launches, including rideshares.

New launch vehicles

The Long March 12 is a new launch vehicle developed by CASC’s Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST). It was previously referred to as the “XLV” and will launch from the new commercial spaceport at Wenchang. The Long March 12 will be China’s first 3.8-meter-diameter launcher. It will be capable of lifting 10 tons to low Earth orbit or 6 tons to a 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.

The Long 6C—a variant of the Long March 6A minus its solid side boosters—will have its first launch this year. CASC previously planned for its debut launch in 2023.

Separately, official newspaper China Space News reported that CASC is planning four launches of its largest rocket, the Long March 5, in 2024. A further five missions will follow in 2025. These figures do not include launches of the Long March 5B low Earth orbit variant.

The rocket has so far launched seven times since its debut in 2016. A period of more than 900 days grounded due to the failure of the second launch. Its 2024 launches include the TJS-11 classified satellite launched last week and the Chang’e-6 mission expected in May.

Further missions, priorities

Missions planned for China’s Tiangong Space Station are the Tianzhou-7 cargo spacecraft, which launched in January, and Tianzhou-8 around August. Shenzhou-18 will launch in the first half of the year to replace the current Shenzhou-17 crew. Another six-month-long crewed mission, Shenzhou-19, will launch late in the year, taking over from Shenzhou-18.

CASC also noted it will continue work on a “four-dimensional new generation commercial remote sensing satellite system.” The system, starting with SuperView (Gaojing) satellites according to earlier statements, is to comprise a total of at least 28 satellites. These include high-resolution optical payloads, wide-width optical payloads, high-resolution radar payloads and other diversified types of commercial remote sensing satellites.

It will also support the integration and value-added services of the Beidou GNSS system, and integrate satellite applications into emerging fields to support key regional economic development.

Officials with the state-owned space and defense giant stated in a press conference that the corporation would continue to make new and greater contributions to accelerating the construction of a powerful aerospace country and support the construction of a world-class military.

Commercial plans

The blue book did not detail the plans of commercial actors. However previous statements by a number of these actors give an indication of the plans.

Landspace aims to launch three Zhuque-2 methalox rockets in 2024, following two successes in 2023. It will also likely conduct further hop tests for its stainless steel Zhuque-3. Galactic Energy plans at least 10 Ceres-1 solid rocket launches, while also debuting the kerolox Pallas-1. 

Space Pioneer aims for a first flight of the Tianlong-3 around July, while Deep Blue Aerospace’s Nebula-1 orbital, reusable rocket could fly in the second half of 2024. 

CAS Space (Kinetica-1), Expace (Kuaizhou rockets), and Orienspace (Gravity-1) have various plans for solid rocket launches. 

A number of Chinese commercial firms are racing to develop and test reusable launch vehicles. A range of Chinese cities and provinces are currently seeking to foster their own commercial space and other high-end and strategy technologies. Beijing and Shanghai have recently released action plans to support commercial space ecosystems.

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...