Chinese Tianlong-2 successfully debuts from Jiuquan

by Adrian Beil

The Tianlong-2 rocket by Space Pioneer successfully performed its debut flight on April 2 and 08:48 UTC. In a rare occurrence, the company’s first orbital flight performed well, reaching its targeted orbit. The launch was conducted at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China. This launch makes Tianlong-2 the first RP-1-based private rocket from China to reach orbit.

Additionally, Hyperbola-1 from i-space returned to flight after several unsuccessful attempts. It was equipped with a dummy payload, and the flight was conducted from the same area at JSLC.

Launch of Tianlong-2

Space Pioneer announced at the beginning of the year that the debut flight of Tianlong-2 was targeting the first quarter of 2023. Initially, more delays were expected on the debut, as the company and rocket were still relatively new. On March 12, Harry Stranger spotted Tianlong-2 vertically in Jiuquan on satellite imagery. 

As the payload, the rocket lifted Aitaikong Kexue (Jinta), a Sun-synchronous operating satellite. It is a “consumer-grade” scientific satellite built by Hangsheng Satellite and proves technology around innovative space applications and commercial aerospace. A counterweight was also installed on the rocket to simulate the mass of more payloads on the test flight.

The CubeSat masses 8 kg and hosts two remote-sensing cameras. It also features a small propulsion unit for orbital adjustments. One of the experiments conducted will be on-orbit wireless charging.

The third stage was deorbited after the launch and reentered over Antarctica.

History of Tianlong-2

Space Pioneer was founded eight years ago, in June 2015, by Kang Yonglai. He was, until that point, part of the development of the Chang Zheng 11 rocket. Initially, the company worked on hypergolic rockets, which would have been used on the Tianlong-1 rocket; however, in December 2020, the company decided to change to RP-1 as the fuel. 

The Jinta test payload launched on the maiden flight of Tianlong-2. (Credit: Space Pioneers)

For this, the company developed Tianhuo-11 as an engine. This engine was fired multiple times in 2021, and it was confirmed that it would be used for the new first launch vehicle, Tianlong-2. It was decided to be used as a second-stage engine.

Tianhou-11 produces 300 kN of thrust and is a closed-cycle engine, using RP-1 as a fuel and liquid oxygen at a temperature of -183 C.

The government-developed YF-102 engine powers the first stage. This engine can produce between 620 kN and 835 kN of thrust at sea level. It can gimbal up to six degrees in each direction. For Tianlong-2, three engines are used, with a lower power of 650 kN per engine. Down the line, a reusable version of the YF-102 might be developed.

Space Pioneer used a hypergolic engine with 3 kN of thrust for the third stage. Eight vernier thrusters assist it with 150 N of thrust each.

Tianlong itself is 35 meters tall with a diameter of 3.35 meters. This diameter, which is very common on Chinese rockets, comes down to experience with the manufacturing and the maximum diameter allowed to be transported on railroads across the country.

At liftoff, the mass is 150 metric tons. With its 1900 kN of thrust, the first stage lifts the rocket out of the atmosphere. The rocket can raise to two metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) or up to 1.5 tons to SSO.

Hyperbola-1 Flight

After an initial successful debut flight in July 2019, Hyperbola failed three times in a row, destroying both an undisclosed payload and two Jilin-1 Mofang-01A payloads. Before this launch, rumors were spreading that this might be the last attempt of the rocket to return to flight to have a meaningful future.

The rocket was not equipped with a payload but was launched as part of a return-to-flight test. Liftoff happened on April 7 at 04:00 UTC. It was confirmed that the rocket performed flawlessly and successfully returned to flight.

Hyperbola-1 is a four-stage solid propellant launch vehicle that stands 24 meters tall, 1.4 meters in diameter, and has a launch mass of 42,000 kg. The rocket itself can carry up to 300 kg into LEO.

Hyperbola-1 before liftoff. (Credit: i-space)

At the failure in February 2021, the rocket failed shortly after liftoff. It was later confirmed that a piece of foam insulation was the reason for the loss, as it was designed to be ejected from the rocket’s exterior during ascent. It flew into one of the four grid fins that provide ascent guidance and stability.

The third flight failed due to a payload separation issue, as the rocket could not release the satellite properly. For the fourth flight, the rocket failed to ignite its second stage.

Down the line, i-space plans to develop Hyperbola-2, a two-stage liquid-fueled reusable rocket. The current plan still outlines a possibility for a 2023 maiden launch.

Jiuquan has been the area of launch for both of these payloads. These launches are only the beginning of a very busy cadence for the spaceport, as another CZ-4C is scheduled to launch from there this month. Additionally, a Kuaizhou-1A is also expected to launch in the near term. 

(Lead photo: Tianlong-2 liftoff. Credit: Space Pioneer)

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