HELSINKI — SAST has conducted China’s highest altitude launch and landing test so far as the country chases reusable rocket capabilities.

A 3.8-meter-diameter test article powered by three methane-liquid oxygen engines lifted off from the Gobi Desert June 23, the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) announced

The test stage achieved an altitude of around 12 kilometers before setting down successfully at a nearby landing area. Landing legs were deployed 50 meters above the ground. The test article did not use moveable fins, and fired its central engine for the duration of the flight.

SAST is a major arm of the country’s main space contractor, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). SAST will follow up with a 70-kilometer-level test utilizing grid fins. The later test is designed to cover the flight profile of the first stage of the rocket. A first orbital flight is planned for 2025.

The rocket would be able to launch up to 6,500 kg of payload to 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), according to earlier reports. 

The test followed a day after an older, hypergolic and expendable Long March 2C rocket stage fell over a populated area. This is a feature of launches from the inland Xichang launch center.

SAST stated plans to develop reusable methalox launchers in 2022. These include a larger, 7.0-meter-diameter version able to launch more than 20,000 kg to 700 km SSO. 

Notably, SAST stated it planned to use engines developed by commercial engine maker Jiuzhou Yunjian (JZYJ). It was not stated which engines were used, though earlier releases by JZYJ suggest it provided engines for an earlier, otherwise undisclosed SAST VTVL test. CASC is meanwhile developing the methalox YF-209 engine, stated to be for the commercial market.

China chases reusability

A host of Chinese commercial companies are meanwhile developing their own reusable rockets. Vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) tests will follow in the coming months. These include higher altitude tests of Landspace’s Zhuque-3 and the Deep Blue Aerospace Nebula-1. The latter launch is expected to be China’s first orbital launch and landing attempt later this year. 

The first Tianlong-3 rocket from Space Pioneer is also expected to fly in the coming months. The first stage is planned to be recovered in the future.

The host of new Chinese reusable rockets will be competing to launch satellites for national and public-private megaconstellation plans. The new launch capacity is needed to construct the constellations according to plans and deadlines.

CALT, another major rocket-making CASC entity, is building a reusable rocket for crewed spaceflight. The Long March 10 first test flight is currently expected in 2026. CALT conducted a limited static fire test earlier this month.

CASC is also developing a two-stage-to-orbit reusable spaceplane and a reusable Long March 9 super heavy-lift launcher. The Long March 9 will construct major space infrastructure including the China-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

China’s progress in reusable rocket technology and overall launch capacity are indicative of the country’s growing space capabilities and ambitions. These also pave the way for more cost-effective and sustainable space missions.

CompanyRocket NameRocket TypeKey Features/Notes
iSpaceHyperbola-3Methane-liquid oxygenPayload capacity of 8,500 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO); first flight planned for 2025.
LandspaceZhuque-3MethaloxPayload capacity up to 21,000 kg to LEO. Stainless steel. first flight planned for 2025.
Galactic EnergyPallas-1Kerosene-liquid oxygenPayload capacity of 5,000 kg to LEO, or 3,000 kg to a 700 km sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).
CAS SpaceKinetica 2KeroloxPayload capacity of 7,800 kg to 500 km SSO.
Deep Blue AerospaceNebula-1KeroloxPayload capacity of 1,000 kg to 500 km SSO; 2,000 kg to LEO. First flight planned in late 2024.
Space PioneerTianlong-3KeroloxComparable to Falcon 9 in launch capability; plans for a reusable first stage.
Space EpochXZY-1Methalox7,000 kg to 1,100 km. Stainless steel. First flight in 2025.
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, SAST methalox rockets, and Long March 9 super heavy-lift launcher.
Non-exhaustive list of planned Chinese reusable rockets (Credit: Andrew Jones/SpaceNews).

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...