HELSINKI — China is researching and developing new vehicles for various human spaceflight missions, including a new methane-fueled launcher apparently inspired by SpaceX.

The country is working on a new generation reusable launch vehicle for missions to low Earth orbit (LEO) and beyond, based on developed technologies, a winged space transportation system, and a fully reusable and low cost, two-stage methane-liquid oxygen launcher, apparently drawing on SpaceX’s Starship system concept.

Notably the latter appears to be a new path for China. The system would see the first stage land vertically while the second stage utilizes wings for initial declaration, before a powered descent and vertical landing.

The concept was presented during a keynote speech by Wang Xiaojun, president of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), a major state-owned rocket maker. 

“We are doing the research on a manned launch vehicle powered by LOX-methane propellant,” Wang said, through a translator, at the International Symposium on Outlook and Cooperation on Near-Earth Orbit Human Space Flight, Feb. 17. The event was organized by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), the Chinese Society of Astronautics (CSA) and CALT.

However, while Starship and Super Heavy are planned to be able to carry in excess of 100 metric tons to LEO, CALT’s methalox system would be capable of launching around 20 tons to LEO, Wang said.

The relevant slide appears to indicate use of a gas generator engine, whereas Starship uses more complex but more powerful staged combustion Raptor engines.

While the illustrations are redolent of systems being developed in the U.S., the work on the launcher is in the research stage and likely does not represent a finalized concept nor an approved project. No timeline for a first launch was provided.

Wang stated the potential for the system for transportation to LEO, reusability and point-to-point transportation. Last year another CALT presentation was noted to include a concept similar to Starship.

CASC is understood to have developed methane-liquid oxygen engines in the past decade. Landspace, a private firm, is currently preparing for the first launch of its methane-fueled Zhuque-2 launch vehicle in the near future. 

China’s space transportation plans have evolved sharply in recent years, following the demonstration of reusable rockets. As context, Wang noted that recent rapid developments in spaceflight technology mean countries are urgently looking to upgrade rockets which feature high success rates, higher efficiencies and launch rates, and much lower unit costs.

He also stated that major space faring nations are developing plans for human spaceflight to the moon and Mars, with utilizing space resources and establishing long-term stays off world as goals.

Wang also provided an update on the new generation launch vehicle for human spaceflight which CALT has been developing in recent years. The rocket builds on breakthroughs made for the Long March 5, currently the country’s largest launcher.

The new launcher will come in a two-stage, single core version for LEO and a three-stage, triple-core variant for missions beyond LEO. Previously China was understood to be looking to use human-rated Long March 7 and Long March 5B launchers for these roles.

The two-stage version of the new-gen rocket will be able to carry around 14 tons to LEO in reusable mode, or 18 tons when expendable. CALT aims to recover the first stages using a tether system.

A version of the rocket is expected to fly for the first time in the next five years and would be capable of carrying a new-generation crew spacecraft—a partially reusable successor to the Shenzhou—to the Chinese space station.  

A pair of launches of the larger variant could be used for a short duration crewed lunar landing mission, according to earlier reports.

Update on China’s new-gen launcher for human spaceflight (also for cargo). Single stick, 2-stage to LEO can carry 14 tonnes reusable, 18 tonnes expendable. 3 stages and three cores for 27tn to lunar transfer orbit. First flight within next 5 years.

— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) February 17, 2022

A slide on a winged space transportation system showed parallel suborbital and smaller orbital spaceplanes used to make repeatable trips to the Chinese space station. After vertical takeoff both would be capable of horizontal landing. 

CASC conducted secretive orbital and suborbital reusable spacecraft tests in September 2020 and July 2021 respectively. It is not known if these tests are directly related to the presented plans.

Looking to the future of propulsion, Wang noted methalox rockets, new materials, combined cycle engines for single-stage-to-orbit systems, artificial intelligence and nuclear thermal propulsion as having potential for boosting spaceflight capabilities by leaps and bounds.

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...