Chinese rocket firms make new moves toward launch

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HELSINKI — A number of Chinese launch firms have taken steps towards realizing plans in recent days with a series of agreements, engine tests and launch vehicle deliveries.

Beijing-based iSpace, the first Chinese private company to launch a satellite into orbit, signed a cooperation framework agreement with Wenchang International Aerospace City Nov. 8 related to joint planning of major commercial projects.

The agreement sees iSpace establish a subsidiary in the zone and provides a boost to efforts to develop an aerospace hub in Wenchang. It could also potentially lead to iSpace launching medium and heavy-lift reusable launchers from Wenchang.

The firm is currently developing methane-liquid oxygen powered launchers named Hyperbola-2 and Hyperbola-3. Recovery of first stages could take place at sea, Hainan Daily reports, with plans to construct required sea facilities and a center for processing recovered rockets. 

Wenchang is a coastal city on the southern island of Hainan and hosts China’s sole coastal spaceport. The national Wenchang launch center, approved in 2007, was established specifically to allow the launch of new-generation large, cryogenic launch vehicles, most notably to enable space station and deep space missions.

The development is the latest in a push to develop an expanded Wenchang International Aerospace City as part of a Hainan free trade port initiative and as a center for international cooperation and exchanges. The aerospace city project covers 12 square kilometers with construction beginning earlier this year.

Both the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic planning body, and the China National Space Administration (CNSA), during a forum in September, expressed support for the development of Wenchang International Aerospace City.

ChinaRocket Co., Ltd., a commercial company under the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), one of China’s two main state-owned launch vehicle makers, has also signed agreements with the space city administration.

Development of commercial launch facilities at Wenchang could ease congestion at China’s existing spaceports as both the Chinese launch rate and the country’s emerging yet somewhat nebulous commercial space sector continue to grow. 

China has three established inland national space launch centers at Jiuquan, Taiyuan and Xichang. Additionally an eastern spaceport for sea launches has been partly established in Haiyang, Shandong province, while a new commercial launch base is under development in Ningbo, eastern China. Jiuquan is also known to be constructing a complex to enable launch of new, commercial methane-LOX rockets such as those being developed by iSpace and Landspace.

Linkspace reemergence

Elsewhere in China the country’s first private launch company, Linkspace, has reemerged after an apparent, near two-year hiatus. 

Linkspace announced Nov. 2 that it had tested an independently-developed electric pump-fed methane-LOX engine named Fengbao-1 as a step towards suborbital launch and landing tests.

Founded in 2014, Linkspace performed a successful 300-meter-altitude vertical takeoff, vertical landing test with an ethanol-powered tech demonstrator in August 2019. The test was part of development of the planned NewLine-1 orbital launcher to be capable of carrying 200 kilograms to a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). The firm stated in 2019 that it was targeting 2021 for a first flight.

The company signed an agreement with rocket engine maker Jiuzhou Yunjian for 10-ton thrust methane-LOX engines shortly after to power a larger test vehicle. However silence followed until March this year when the company posted a recruitment notice. 

Linkspace did not provide a new timeline for suborbital and orbital launches following its reemergence. A much newer entrant, Deep Blue Aerospace, last month conducted a 100-meter hop test with the second launch of its Nebula-M tech demonstrator.

Linkspace’s erstwhile partner Jiuzhou Yunjian recently signed a deal to provide its 10-ton and 80-ton thrust Lingyun methalox engines to another launch startup, Rocket Pi.

Galactic Energy set for second launch

Meanwhile Galactic Energy, which became China’s second private launch firm to place a satellite in orbit in November 2020, is nearing its second launch. 

The second Ceres-1 solid rocket, consisting of three solid propellant stages and a liquid upper stage, recently arrived at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert for tests. 

Galactic Energy states it has improved the second and third stage engines and introduced carbon fiber composites, boosting thrust-to-weight ratio, payload capacity and overall performance of the launcher. 

The second Ceres-1 is expected to launch from Jiuquan carrying multiple satellites in the near future.