Chinese spaceplane takes flight again; iSpace and LandSpace prepare to hop

by Adrian Beil

China is aiming for a strong finish to 2023, with several high-profile launches happening in a short period. At the same time, both LandSpace, and iSpace have been directing their attention to reusable rocket stages, with vertical takeoff and landing testing of pathfinder prototypes.

China’s reusable spaceplane – Chang Zheng 2F/T

With the American X-37B waiting for its ride to space on Falcon Heavy, another space plane started its mission on the other side of the world. A Chang Zheng 2F/T launched the Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi (CSSHQ — Chinese Reusable Experimental Spaceplane), on Thursday, Dec. 14, at 14:12 UTC. The launch was conducted from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China.

Since the payload and operation of this spaceplane are highly classified, the details released about this mission have been very ambiguous. According to China’s official announcement, the spaceplane will be used to conduct verifications for reusable technologies, and space science experiments, to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.

It has not been verified if this is actually true, or if the spaceplane’s mission also includes any military objectives. Just like the operation of the X-37B, China’s space plane is heavily coated in mystery. The spaceplane will operate in orbit, for a duration of a few months, before returning to Earth.

This is the third mission for the spacecraft. The first of its previous missions started in September 2020, with a duration of two days, while its second was a 276-day mission between August 2022 and May 2023. According to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the space plane will be used up to 20 times.

The spaceplane was launched to a 332.9-by-347.9-kilometer orbit, with an inclination of 49.99 degrees. Despite the launches of the Chinese spaceplane and the X-37B being scheduled close together, a correlation between both missions is neither likely nor expected.

The launch vehicle for this flight was a modified Chang Zheng 2F (CZ-2F). While the CZ-2F usually serves as the launcher for crewed Shenzhou missions, to deploy the spaceplane it flew in the CZ-2F/T configuration with a conventional payload fairing. The CZ-2F features two stages, with four liquid side boosters attached to the first stage. Overall the rocket stands 62 meters tall, with the core diameter being 3.35 meters.

ZhuQue-2 aftermath, and LandSpace hop

In the aftermath of the successful third flight of ZhuQue-2, the company LandSpace released a large amount of interesting material about their future projects. In a rendered video, the company reveals more details about their upcoming ZhuQue-3 rocket, which will be closer to a Falcon 9-class vehicle.

Overall, ZhuQue-3 will be 76.5 meters tall, with a 4.5-meter body diameter, and a 5.2-meter fairing. This marks a move away from the 3.5-meter body diameter common across many Chinese rockets, which will likely introduce more complex and custom transportation requirements.

The first stage will be powered by nine Tianque 12B (TQ-12B) methalox engines. These engines are a successor to the TQ-12A, which is itself planned to be used on future ZhuQue-2 missions. The first stage engines will provide 8,800 kilonewtons (900 metric tons) of thrust at liftoff, while the second stage will be powered by a single TQ-15B delivering 1,183 kilonewtons of thrust with a specific impulse of 3500 m/s, or 356.9 seconds, in vacuum conditions.

Overall, Landspace hopes the rocket will be able to lift up to 21.3 metric tons of payload to a 450km low-Earth orbit. The target price for payloads is $2,800 per kilogram in US Dollars.

ZhuQue-3s VTVL pad, next to the ZhuQue-2 flight three rocket. (Credit: LandSpace)

LandSpace also confirmed that one of the next steps for the company will be a vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) test. In this test, a hopper vehicle will verify the vertical takeoff, gimbling, throttle, and steering capability of the engines, and perform a takeoff and landing. This is similar to prototypes used by SpaceX in the past, such as Grasshopper and Falcon 9-R for the Falcon 9, or Starhopper as part of Starship development.

This fits with satellite imagery previously acquired by Harry Stranger. In the pictures, a structure that seems to have been a landing pad was spotted next to the launch site of ZhuQue-2.

The VTVL test is currently expected to take place before the end of the year. Its goal will be to demonstrate first stage recovery, with more assembly and flight validations planned in 2024, before a first operational launch in 2025.

iSpace Hop

Another Chinese company, iSpace, is also developing a VTVL rocket and recently completed its second test flight with the Shuang Quxian 2Y (SQX-2Y, or Hyperbola-2Y) hopper.

Liftoff of the Hyperbola Y2 hopper. (Credit: iSpace)

Following on from its first 200-meter hop in November, the hopper reached an altitude of 343.12 meters during a 63-second flight. The target platform, which was 50 meters away from liftoff, was reached successfully.

SQX-2 was designed as a two-stage, liquid-methane-fueled reusable rocket, which aimed to lift up to 1.9 tons into low-Earth orbit (LEO). iSpace began hot-fire testing of the JD-1 engine for this rocket in May 2020. However, as of late 2023, the company has announced that Hyperbola-2 will no longer be built, and the hopper will instead serve as a testbed for the future SQX-3 rocket.

This will be a much bigger rocket, expected to lift up to 8.5 metric tons of payload into LEO in a reusable configuration, and up to 13.4 tons in an expandable configuration. The first flight is planned for 2025, while reusability is planned for 2026.

Yaogan 41- Chang Zheng 5

Chinese massive Chang Zheng 5 (CZ-5) rocket flew once again. Liftoff of the Yaogan 41 mission took place on Friday, Dec. 15, at 13:41 UTC from Wenchang, the usual launch site for the CZ-5. The payload was described as a remote sensing satellite, which would operate in a high orbit. It was tracked in a standard geostationary transfer orbit after launch.

Chang Zheng 5 rolls out. (Credit: Vony7 – CASC)

The fairing of the rocket seems to be extended compared to previous missions, which indicates a large payload inside. The mass could be in the range of 10,000 kilograms or more, given the capability of the rocket which is the most powerful in China’s current fleet. 

Chang Zheng 5 is a heavy-lift rocket, used only for missions where China requires its performance to deploy heavy payloads or reach high-energy trajectories. It stands 57 meters toll, with a liftoff thrust of 10,565 kilonewtons. It can place up to 32,000 kilograms of payload into LEO, and up to 14,000 kilograms into GTO.

The official purpose of the Yaogan 41 is stated as “Land Surveying, survey of crops, environment control, meteorology alert, and general disaster prevention and mitigation” which is most likely a placeholder for its true mission.

Dier-1 – Shuang Quxian 1

iSpace’s Shuang Quxian 1 (SQX-1), or Hyperbola-1, launched again on Dec. 17 at 07:00 UTC. Its payload was DEAR-1 (Discovery Exploration Advance Recovery 1), a prototype recoverable experimental spacecraft operated by Chinese firm AZSPACE, which was placed into a sun-synchronous orbit.

Announcing the successful launch, AZSPACE detailed some of the aspects of the planned mission: “The satellite in orbit mainly carries out technical verification of small uncrewed spacecraft platforms, and carries optical observation payloads and life science payloads. This mission will accumulate experience for the design, development, and flight of the subsequent B300 series of small uncrewed spacecraft.”

SQX-1 liftoff. (Credit: iSpace)

SQX-1 stands 21 meters tall, with a fairing diameter of 1.2 meters. It consists of four solid-fueled stages, guided by liquid-propellant attitude control engines. The rocket can be used to transport up to 300 kilograms of payload to LEO. After a series of failures in 2021 and 2022, the rocket successfully returned to flight in April 2023

Yaogan 39 Group 05 – Chang Zheng 2D

A Chang Zheng 2D (CZ-2D) rocket successfully launched a trio of Yaogan 39 satellites on Dec. 10, lifting off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center at 01:58 UTC.

Yaogan 39 satellites are part of China’s satellite reconnaissance network, with the name Yaogan Weixing – which translates as “Remote sensing satellite” – applied to most of China’s military satellites. Each group of Yaogan 39 satellites consists of three satellites, with the Dec. 10 launch deploying the fifth such group.

The CZ-2D has been the usual launch vehicle for these Yaogan 39 triplets. It is one of the earlier versions of the Chang Zheng rocket and consists of two stages – although some configurations include an optional third stage. While it is designated as part of the Chang Zheng 2 family, it is more similar to the Chang Zheng 4 series as it incorporates enhancements made to the design during the development of the CZ-4 rocket.

(Lead image: Chang Zheng 5 lifts off. Credit: CASC)

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