HELSINKI — A Chinese commercial rocket company has successfully launched and safely landed a test article on its path to developing a reusable launch vehicle.
Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Ltd., also known as iSpace, launched the Hyperbola-2Y single-stage hopper at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center Nov. 2.
The Hyperbola-2 methane-liquid oxygen reusable verification stage rose to a height of 178 meters during its 51-second flight. It performed a powered descent and soft landing, supported by four landing legs. The 3.35-meter-diameter, 17m-long test stage is powered by a variable thrust Focus-1 engine.
The vertical takeoff, vertical landing test marks progress towards a reusable medium-lift rocket to debut in 2025. It is also the latest marker in Chinese efforts to emulate the success of SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket.
The flight verified iSpace’s variable thrust methalox propulsion, vertical landing guidance, navigation, guidance and control, and will be used to test recovery and reuse processes. The footage did not indicate a restarting of the Focus-1 engine, but the company has previously conducted ground restart hot fire tests.
The successful hop test “marks a major breakthrough in China’s commercial aerospace industry in reusable launch vehicle technology. It also signals the charge for China’s aerospace sector to catch up with the world’s most advanced levels in reusable launch vehicle technology” an iSpace statement read.
The test is part of the company’s plan to develop the Hyperbola-3 rocket with a reusable first stage. iSpace is skipping the previously-planned smaller Hyperbola-2, the company stated at the 9th China (International) Commercial Aerospace Forum in July this year.
The company is targeting a first flight of the 13.4-metric-ton to low Earth orbit (LEO) Hyperbola-3 rocket in 2025. A demonstration of reuse will follow in 2026. The 69-meter-long rocket will be able to lift 8.5 tons to LEO in reusable mode. iSpace says it aims to conduct 25 Hyperbola-3 launches per year by 2030.
The Hyperbola-3B, a triple-core version of the rocket, akin to the Falcon Heavy in configuration, will be capable of carrying no less than 15 tons to LEO, according to iSpace.
iSpace made history as the first privately-funded Chinese company to reach orbit in 2019 with the solid-fueled Hyperbola-1 rocket. The company however suffered three consecutive failures with the rocket, before a successful return to flight earlier this year. Further launches of the solid rocket are expected in the coming year, despite competition from Galactic Energy’s Ceres-1 and Expace’s Kuaizhou rockets.
iSpace is not the only Chinese company working on reusable rockets. Galactic Energy recently performed a hop test with a jet engine-powered article. CAS Space, a spin-off from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has likewise conducted such tests to verify algorithms. Deep Blue Aerospace completed a successful kilometer-level rocket launch and landing test in 2022.
Another competitor, Space Pioneer, is planning to launch its Tianlong-3 rocket in the first half of 2024. The rocket will be comparable to Falcon 9 in launch capability and eventually to be made reusable. Landspace’s methalox Zhuque-2 is also expected to be converted for reusability.
China opened up its space sector to private and commercial activity in 2014. This is seen as largely in reaction to the explosion of commercial space in the U.S. The central government has since implemented policies and published guidance to support the development of commercial space.
2023 has been a notable year for China’s commercial launch companies. CAS Space, Galactic Energy, iSpace, Expace, Space Pioneer and Landspace have all reached orbit. These include first Chinese commercial liquid propellant launch successes, achieved by Space Pioneer and Landspace.
The Tiangong space station is expected to provide an opportunity for commercial launch vehicles to gain contracts to deliver cargo. The national Guowang LEO broadband megaconstellation is also expected to provide opportunities for commercial actors.