Explosion at Chinese space launch center revealed by satellite imagery

by

HELSINKI — An explosion severely damaged rocket facilities at China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in October 2021, commercial satellite imagery shows. 

Jiuquan spaceport is situated in the Gobi Desert and hosts major orbital launches including all of the country’s Shenzhou human spaceflight missions. Established in 1958 it is the first of China’s four national spaceports to be constructed.

Evidence of the explosion was discovered by space enthusiast Harry Stranger using imagery from Airbus and CNES and posted on Twitter June 10.

The incident occurred at facilities constructed around 16 kilometers to the southwest of Jiuquan’s two main launch complexes. The pair of launch pads are used by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) for hypergolic Long March rocket launches for human spaceflight, civil, military and scientific missions and were unaffected by the blast.

The high resolution images show the facilities, which were possibly used for testing solid rocket motors, intact in October 2021. The apparent aftermath of an explosion is visible in an image from November 2021.

Further satellite imagery from Planet’s Super Dove satellites seen by SpaceNews indicates that the explosion occurred between 0316 UTC on Oct. 15 and 0407 UTC Oct. 16 (11:16 p.m, Oct. 14 and 12:07 a.m. October 16 Eastern). 

China’s Shenzhou-13 crewed mission lifted off from Jiuquan at 16:23 UTC Oct. 15 (12:23 p.m. Eastern), suggesting the blast had little or no impact on CASC, the country’s main space contractor, and its major activities.

There is no indication that the explosion was reported by Chinese media. It is thus somewhat unclear what the facilities were used for and what caused the explosion. Given the profile of launches at Jiuquan it is likely that the structures were related to testing and assembly of solid rockets operated by non-CASC entities. Construction of the test facilitIES began in September 2018. 

CASIC, a state-owned giant defense contractor separate from CASC but with its own space ambitions, is developing a series of solid rockets for orbital launches and has established infrastructure at Jiuquan for launches of Kuaizhou-1A and larger Kuaizhou-11 rockets using transport erector launchers rather than a launch pad and service structure.

Both of these have suffered launch failures. The former suffered a failure in December 2021 following a return to flight earlier in the autumn. The Kuaizhou-11 failed with its first and so far only launch in 2020 and has since remained grounded. 

The Kuaizhou-11 had been slated for a return to flight before the end of 2021 according to earlier reports. A news release from CASIC subsidiary Expace indicated that preparations for a final assembly for a launch were underway in August. No such launch attempt has been reported.

Chinese solid rocket efforts

The launch of Kuaizhou rockets from Jiuquan is part of a wider push to develop solid rocket launch capabilities, including privately-funded launch service providers. 

However a number of solid launch vehicles have experienced failures, with private firm iSpace suffering a third consecutive loss of a mission last month, casting doubt on the prospects of the Hyperbola-1 rocket. Landspace and OneSpace launches in 2018 and 2019 also failed.

Alternatives are also on the way, however. Galactic Energy, established after the early commercial movers noted above, has succeeded with both launches of its Ceres-1 rocket and plans a third around July. 

CAS Space, spun off from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is preparing for its first mission, using the ZK-1A designed to carry up to 2 metric tons of payload to LEO, which would be China’s largest solid rocket when it lifts off in June or July. CASC spinoff China Rocket has launched one Jielong-1 (“Smart Dragon”) rocket and plans to launch the larger Jielong-3 in the second half of the year. CASC also operates its solid Long March 11 from Jiuquan and other sites.

Jiuquan has also hosted the construction of infrastructure for launches of new methane-liquid oxygen launchers, with Landspace expected to test launch its Zhuque-2 rocket in the near future.