HELSINKI — Chinese launch startup Landspace has unveiled plans to develop a reusable stainless steel rocket.

The Zhuque-3 (Vermillion Bird 3) will use stainless propellant tanks and clusters of Tianque methane-liquid oxygen propellant rocket engines, according to a presentation by Landspace CEO Zhang Changwu at the Mingyue Lake Aerospace Information Industry International Ecosystem Event in Chongqing, China, Nov. 21. 

The two-stage launcher will have a payload capacity of 20 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) when expendable. Recovery of the first stage downrange will allow 16.5 tons to LEO, while a landing back at the launch site will offer a capacity of 11 tons to LEO. A render of the rocket shows grid fins and deployable landing legs on the first stage.

The announcement came just days after SpaceX performed its second Starship/Super Heavy launch test.

Details such as a tentative test launch date and the dimensions of the rocket were not stated, suggesting the plan is at a very early stage.

Developing the rocket will pose numerous challenges related to the weight and properties of steel, including manufacturing and fabricating complexities. 

The launcher, once operational, will also face competition domestically. Fellow startup Space Pioneer is planning to launch its Tianlong-3 rocket next year. That rocket will be capable of lifting 17 tons to LEO, or 14 tons to 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.

The emergence of both rockets also illustrates that commercial launch plans in China are growing in terms of payload capabilities. The early days of commercial launch companies in China saw plans for light-lift, solid-fueled launchers targeting launches of small commercial or science satellites. 

Now, further Chinese firms including iSpace, Galactic Energy, Space Pioneer and Deep Blue Aerospace are working on reusable liquid propellant rockets. A number of these have now stated that they are targeting contracts to launch batches of satellites for China’s national satellite internet megaconstellation project, named Guowang.

Landspace is one of China’s first commercial launch companies. It was established in 2015 after the Chinese government opened up parts of the space sector to private capital in late 2014. The development is seen to be a reaction to developments in the U.S. 

Landspace is currently preparing to launch its third Zhuque-2 methane-liquid oxygen rocket on Dec. 4 Eastern. Its first Zhuque-2 launch failed in December 2022, before a second attempt successfully reached orbit in July

That launch made the firm the first to reach orbit with a methalox launcher. It is also the second Chinese commercial firm to reach orbit with a liquid propellant launcher. This followed Space Pioneer’s kerolox Tianlong-2 in April.

The company has set up an intelligent manufacturing base in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province. It also established a $1.5 billion medium and large-scale liquid rocket assembly and test plant at Jiaxing, also in Zhejiang. 

Landspace is not the only Chinese launch firm interested in stainless steel rockets. Another, much newer Chinese startup, Space Epoch, performed hot fire tests earlier this year as part of development of a planned reusable stainless-steel launcher. 

The tests used a 4.2-meter-diameter stainless steel propellant tank combined with methalox engines developed by Jiuzhou Yunjian. 

China’s main space contractor, the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), has also stated its plans for the super heavy-lift Long March 9 will eventually see it become fully reusable.

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...