LandSpace has confirmed that the second methane-based ZhuQue-2 is fully assembled as the company gears up for its second launch campaign. After the initial first flight failure, this could mean a second attempt to get a methane-fueled rocket to orbit is approaching.
While the debut flight of Tianlong-2 is slipping into April, China still launched several payloads in the past ten days. This includes a Kuaizhou-1A launch and two Chang Zheng family launches. Furthermore, another spacewalk on the Tiangong Space Station was conducted, which so far lacks any confirmation from China.
ZhuQue-2 Nears Flight Two as Investigation Wraps Up
A social media post on Weibo shows the second flight rocket fully assembled, with the fairing prepared next to it. The company has not given an exact launch date yet, with the goal most likely being to launch over the course of Q2 2023. If the ZhuQue-2 flight one process is followed, a ground test campaign will be conducted before attaching the payload and launching.
ZhuQue-2 is the first methane-based rocket in the world to reach space and is now attempting to reach a stable orbit first as well. It is racing SpaceX’s Starship, which is also readying for a flight in April, with ULA’s Vulcan not expected to fly earlier than May.
The initial flight of ZhuQue-2 failed after a LOX pump low-pressure outer casting for the second stage vernier engine broke under impact force from the 2nd stage main engine shutdown. ZQ-2 is designed so that the second stage will shut down its main chamber, and the four-vernier engine will take over as a third stage for the final orbital insertion.
Specifically, the connection broke at the LOX inlet pipe, which was not properly designed to withstand the force required for this event. Ground testing was conducted to understand and correct the weak point.
This was confirmed by LandSpace in an official post about the reasons for the failure. The affected connections have been strengthened for launch number two before the company switches to their new TQ-15A upper stage for flight three.
In earlier statements, the company confirmed to be gearing up for up to one flight a month very shortly and also spoke about reusability for its rockets down the line. It might be essential in China’s plan to phase out older hypergolic rockets and replace them with new modern rockets such as ZQ-2 or Kuaizhou-1A.
Kuaizhou-1A Launches Tianmu-01 03-06
On March 22, at 09:09 UTC, four meteorological satellites were launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC). They are part of the Tianmu-1 constellation and were launched on a Kuaizhou-1A rocket.
The Tianmu constellation is operated by Xiyong Microelectronics, which is a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). Currently, there are six satellites of the weather constellation in orbit. The exact details of the satellites, as well as detailed operations, are not published so far. What is known is that they use GNSS radio occultation to determine and research the weather.
As is common with observation and weather satellites, the payloads were launched to a Sun-synchronous orbit to allow consistent light conditions during the observation.
KZ-1A is a mostly solid-fueled rocket consisting of three solid stages and one final liquid-fueled stage for an accurate orbital insertion. It is built by ExPace, which is also a subsidiary of CASIC.
It was developed from the origin of the DF-21 intermediate-range ballistic missile and is a highly flexible launch vehicle that can launch from different mobile platforms.
A common strategy in developing the Kuaizhou family is fast launch preparations and highly flexible launch conditions. There are multiple rockets in development in the family, and the most common similarity is the use of solid propellants for easy storage. Launch readiness can take hours after starting the launch preparation for KZ-1A.
After successfully deploying the payload, the fourth stage conducted an orbit-lowering burn to reenter quicker. It burned up over Florida on March 23 at about 8 AM UTC.
Chang Zheng 2D Launches PIESAT-1
A few days later, on March 30, at 10:50 UTC, a Chang Zheng 2D was launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center (TSLC). The payload was PIESAT-1, a module of four satellites working together. The developer of the payloads was GalaxySpace, who will also operate them.
They are X-band synthetic-aperture radar satellites with a resolution of 0.5 to five meters and were launched to a 528 km SSO. The module consists of one main satellite and three sub-satellites oriented around the main module. The main satellite will act as an emitting part, while the three passive satellites are the receiving parts.
They will be used to conduct topographic mapping on a 1:50,000 scale and monitor Earth’s crust movement to a precision of 3-5 mm/year. The main satellite masses 320 kg, while every sub-satellite has a mass of 270 kg, bringing the launch mass to 1,130 kg.
The launch vehicle for this mission was Chang Zheng 2D. It is a 40.77-meter tall carrier rocket, which consists of two stages. It is manufactured and operated by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) and is mainly used for smaller payloads to LEO and SSO.
In rare cases, it can be equipped with a YZ-3 upper stage, which allows for additional performance for higher energy orbits. However, this kick stage is rarely used and was not utilized for this launch.
Chang Zheng 4C Launches Yaogan 34-04
The final launch was the Yaogan 34-04 mission, carrying a SAST-built optical remote sensing satellite to LEO. The official use case for this satellite is “land census, urban planning, road network design, crop yield estimation, and disaster prevention and mitigation,” a commonly used placeholder for satellites that carry a military classified use case.
The mass and size remain unknown, as China never releases information about classified Yaogan missions.
The launch vehicle was Chang Zheng 4C, which consists of three stages. It can lift more heavy payloads to LEO, with a launch capacity of up to 4,200 kg. So far, it has flown 49 times.
Shenzhou-15 Crew Conducts Second Spacewalk
While it is not acknowledged by the Chinese government yet, rumors on the social media platform Weibo make it likely that a second spacewalk was conducted by the Shenzhou-15 crew just days ago. This is consistent with how the public has been informed about the first Shenzhou-15 spacewalk, as China has stopped communicating about these operations and their exact purpose.
Previously, China would release detailed information about the spacewalks, including their duration and timings, but with the Shenzhou-15 crew, that open communication has stopped, and social media has become more essential to find out about operations on the Tiangong Station.
(Lead image: The second ZQ-2 vehicle fully assembled. Credit: LandSpace)