HELSINKI — A launch tower for commercial launches will be completed by the end of the year near China’s coastal Wenchang spaceport and begin hosting regular missions in 2024.
Construction and commissioning of the first launch station at Hainan Commercial Launch Site will be completed by the end of this year, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) stated Jan. 29.
Construction began in July 2022 and the facility will include service structures, launch pads, water spray systems, lightning protection towers, and rocket transfer equipment. The first launch will likely be of a Long March 8 rocket developed by CASC for commercial missions and rideshares.
A second pad is also planned for Hainan Commercial Launch Site, located on the southern island province of Hainan. Together the new launch facilities are expected to be able to host launch vehicles powered by fuels including kerosene, methane and more.
The construction of the new commercial site will help facilitate the continued growth in Chinese launch activities, especially for launchers developed by commercial rocket firms, whose activity could double in 2023. Firms including Expace, Landspace, iSpace, Galactic Energy, Space Pioneer, Deep Blue Aerospace, Orienspace and Rocket Pi are all looking to reach orbit this year or next.
It will also ease congestion at the established inland spaceports at Jiuquan, Taiyuan and Xichang, and existing pads at Wenchang. CASC’s Xi’an-based Sixth Academy is also ramping up production of the YF-100 kerosene-liquid oxygen engines which power many of China’s newer Long March rockets. 80 engines are expected to be delivered this year, up from 60 in 2022, allowing a wider use of these rockets.
Wenchang has already been at the center of an expansion of Chinese launch plans and capabilities.
The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center opened in 2014 and allowed China to launch new, larger, cryogenic rockets capable of sending 22-metric-ton space station modules to orbit. It also hosted launches of a lunar sample return mission and the country’s first interplanetary expedition, Tianwen-1. Its activities are now beginning to expand.
“In the near future, Wenchang will see its launch frequency go from between six to eight times a year, to 20 or 30 times a year,” Zhong Wen’an, chief engineer of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center which oversees Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, told CCTV Dec. 31.
The Long March 5B rocket could this year begin launching stacks of satellites for China’s planned low Earth orbit communications megaconstellation, named Guowang.
The new launch facilities are being constructed as China’s nascent commercial space sector begins to establish itself, following a 2014 government policy shift to open sections of activity to private investment.
The activity is also part of a wider initiative for a Wenchang International Aerospace City which will also include rocket assembly and satellite research and development plants, and , satellite data and application services.
Subsidiaries from CASC, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and commercial launch companies iSpace and Deep Blue Aerospace have already signed contracts to establish a presence in the city. The latter pair are developing reusable liquid launchers.
Wenchang will continue to play a leading role in China’s evolving and expanding plans for space as the host for planned crewed lunar missions. Zhong Wen’an said in December that Wenchang will be expanded to facilitate the launch of human moon landing missions.
CASC is developing a crew launcher for lunar missions that is expected to have a LEO test launch around 2026. A pair of the full, triple-core, three-stage rockets could support a short-term human lunar landing mission before 2030.
The giant state-owned space and defense contractor is also developing the super heavy-lift Long March 9 to launch lunar infrastructure from Wenchang. CASC last year revealed that it had scrapped plans for an expendable version of the 100-meter-plus-long rocket and was shifting to a reusable design, likely delaying its test launch into the 2030s.
Wenchang is also playing a role in the popularization of space in China. While operated by the People’s Liberation Army, as with China’s far less-accessible inland sites, Wenchang spaceport’s location near pubic beaches means thousands of spectators turn out to watch launches.