HELSINKI — China’s main space contractor is aiming to carry out more than 40 launches in 2020, including lunar, interplanetary and space infrastructure missions.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), stated Jan. 2 (Chinese) that its major goals include completing the Beidou navigation satellite system, launching missions to Mars and a lunar sample return, and test launches of three new launch vehicles.

Other activities will include launches of the Apstar-6D communications satellite based on a new DFH-4E bus, Hongyan low-Earth orbit internet satellites, remote sensing and weather satellites and commercial payloads. A new generation recoverable satellite for microgravity research is also slated.

China has led the global launch tables for the past two years as it builds a range of space infrastructure comparable to major space players. The expanding activity reflects growing ambitions in exploration, remote sensing, commercial constellations and new areas including low-Earth orbit satellite internet access.

CASC, a state-owned defense contractor, carried out 27 launches involving 66 satellites across 2019, with one failure, according to board chairman Wu Yansheng. In total the country held 34 orbital launches last year.

Moon, Mars, space station

A number of CASC’s major plans can now move forward following a successful Dec. 27 return-to-flight of the Long March 5, China’s most powerful launcher. 

The 5-meter-diameter, 57-meter-tall Long March 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle is now clear to launch China’s first independent interplanetary mission — a Mars orbiter and rover — during a narrow launch window across late July to early August.

The Long March 5 failed in its second flight in July 2017, delaying the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission and the construction of the Chinese Space Station. 

Chang’e-5, a complex mission to collect and return two kilograms of lunar samples from Oceanus Procellarum, is expected in late 2020. It will be the first such mission since the 1970s and will involve the first robotic lunar orbit rendezvous. 

The first flight of the Long March 5B, a variant of the Long March 5 developed for low Earth orbit missions, will be carried out this year. The test flight payload will be an uncrewed test of a new generation crewed spacecraft capable of journeys to deep space. 

If successful, China will be able to begin construction of its planned space station in 2021 with the launch of the 20-metric-ton Tianhe core module.

New launch vehicles

Reacting to events in the international launch market, 2020 will see China attempt the first launch of a rocket capable of vertical takeoff, vertical landing. The Long March 8 will be able to launch a 4.5-5 metric ton payload to SSO and 2.8 tons to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO).

The first stage of the Long March 8 is largely inherited from the Long March 7, a new generation kerosene-liquid oxygen launcher. The Long March 7 debuted in 2016 and carried the Tianzhou-1 resupply spacecraft in 2017 but has not flown since.

The Long March 7A, a modified version which includes a liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen third stage inherited from the Long March 3 series, will launch from Wenchang in the near future. A Yuanwang cargo ship, which participated in transporting the Long March 5, is currently moored at Tianjin to collect a launch vehicle that could be the Long March 7A for a launch to GTO.

Together the Long March 7A and 8 could help alleviate the issue of inland launches dropping spent stages on inhabited areas.

Commercial launch activities

Chinese launch activity will be further boosted by new private and commercial launch firms. These include China Rocket Co. Ltd, a CASC spinoff developing Jielong (Smart Dragon) solid rockets. Jielong-1 missions and a first Jielong-2 launch are planned for 2020.

iSpace, which became the first private Chinese launch company to place a satellite in orbit in July, is expected to follow with further Hyperbola-1 light-lift solid rocket launches. Galactic Energy plans to hold its first launch with a solid rocket in the first half of the year. OneSpace, which failed with its first attempt early last year, aims to get back to the pad in 2020.

The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), a sister state-owned enterprise to CASC and a major missile developer, is planning to carry out at least eight launches of its solid-fuelled Kuaizhou-1A. It will also hold a first launch of the larger, delayed Kuaizhou-11 launcher.

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