Following China’s impressive 2022, the country once again managed to launch over 60 times in a calendar year. While the year lacked high-profile missions, more are on the horizon as China focuses on the Moon.
While the year is not fully over yet, China already managed to build up an impressive manifest for 2023. Only dwarfed by SpaceX and the United States, China launched 66 orbital launches in 2023, of which 64 were successes. Another launch is set to occur on Dec. 30.
Overall, China’s cadence is very close to the country’s 2022 performance, which saw 64 orbital launches, of which 62 were successful.
Most of 2023’s launches were part of the government-directed Chang Zheng rocket program, with 46 flights over the whole family. Other rockets, such as Ceres, Kuaizhou, Hyperbola, and ZhuQue, also made sure that smaller, non-Chang Zheng rockets appeared in the overall picture. 20 non-Chang Zheng launches took place in 2023.
Sorting by configuration, the one shining star in the Chinese fleet has been the Chang Zheng 2D, which launched 12 times this year. While Falcon 9 Block 5 will have launched 92 times in standalone first place, Chang Zheng 2D takes the place as the second most-flown orbital rocket in 2023, worldwide.
Another notable fact is the change from the government to the private sector or semi-private sector. In 2022, about 83% of launches in China were performed by a Chang Zheng rocket. In 2023, that number went down to 70%. In 2021, it was even higher at 87%.
It is to note here, that some of the Chinese private space companies, while technically not being part of the government space companies, are still directed and controlled by government space agencies. Overall, a shift to more commercial alternatives is expected in 2024 and beyond, as China’s massive small to medium satellite launcher market kicks into gear.
(Chinese spaceflight data of 2023 provided by Cosmic Penguin)
The Tiangong Space Station had a busy year of operations with three launches visiting it, including the Tianzhou 6 resupply mission and two Shenzhou missions in May and October.
At the beginning of the year, the crew from Shenzhou 15, which launched in November 2022, was still present. The three-person crew was commanded by Fei Junlong. The crew was the first rotation since the completion of the Wentian and Mengtian modules in July and October 2022. With the station now entering normal operations, this crew was one of the first who could focus on science instead of building the Tiangong Station.
The crew of Shenzhou 15 wrapped up their mission after 186 days, seven hours, and 25 minutes. They were replaced by Shenzhou 16, which launched on May 30. The crew features commander Jing Haipeng, flight engineer Zhu Yangzhu, and payload specialist Gui Haichao.
Part of their work on Tiangong included a spacewalk, in which they installed a support frame for a panoramic camera outside the Tianhe core module, and lifted two panoramic cameras outside the Mengtian experiment module.
After 153 days in space, the crew of Shenzhou 16 was replaced by Shenzhou 17. Tang Hongbo, Tang Shengjie, and Jiang Xiniin have since been on the station and have a mission duration planned for 180 days. The planned end of the mission will be in May 2024.
Overall, the year went along without any breaking news or groundbreaking changes in Tiangong. It entered normal operations and left the busy days of constructing it behind. Next year, no more module expansions are planned, but the Xuntian telescope will join the station in 2025.
The private sector
One of the stories of 2023 in the private sector was China’s Landspace, which launched the world’s first methane-based rocket twice this year. The second launch of the rocket overall, in July, went into the record books as the first liquid methane propellant rocket to reach orbit, while the third flight, in December of 2023, managed to be the first methane launch bringing payloads into orbit.
The company even plans hop tests in preparation for ZhuQue-3, its reusable bigger rocket. These hop tests are expected as early as somewhere around the new year.
Next to LandSpace, other Chinese companies also managed to stay in the news in 2023. Ceres-1, from Galactic Energy, managed to launch seven times in 2023, of which six were successful. During that, it also launched one Ceres from the Yellow Sea, during the Tianqu-21 mission in September, which launched from the DeFu 15002 platform.
After a harsh 2021, and 2022, with three launches in a row failing, i-space returned with its Hyperbola-1 rocket. The company completed two launches in 2023, and they both went without issues. Next to it, the company also performed hop tests with its Hyperbola-2Y hopper, in preparation for the Hyperbola-3 rocket, planned for 2025.
The company completed two hops, in which the hopper completed a 178.42-meter and a 343-meter hop before successfully landing at the designated landing location.
In April, Space Pioneer successfully debuted Tianlong-2 and became the first Chinese privately-funded company to successfully debut a liquid-fueled rocket.
Other notable launches
At the very end of the year, Chang Zheng 5 made a comeback. The giant Chinese rocket lifted the classified Yaogan 41 mission. The mission lifted a surveillance satellite into orbit, which is expected to be close to a Hubble class kind of size.
The secretive experimental Chinese spaceplane also saw some action. It touched down in May 2023, after 276 days in space, and then launched again on a Chang Zheng 2F on Dec.14. The exact purpose of the spaceplane is as secretive as the X-37B from the United Space.
Overall space program
China provided more updates about Chang Zheng 9 and Chang Zheng 10 throughout the year. The focus on the moon, with the main Chang Zheng 10 vehicle, is becoming more obvious. Currently, the country targets a moon landing in the 2030s and a debut of the Chang Zheng 10 carrier rocket that will carry it there in the general timeframe of 2026/2027.
While the initial media focus was on Chang Zheng 9, as it is closer to a Starship-like vehicle, it became increasingly apparent that Chang Zheng 10 is the rocket to watch in the near future. Its capability to launch up to 70,000 kilograms into low-Earth orbit, and up to 27,000 kilograms into trans-Lunar injection, makes it the Chinese Moon rocket in the near future.
The year was busy for both Chang Zheng 10, and Chang Zheng 9. Chang Zheng 10 received its official name in February 2023, as it was revealed at the National Museum of China as the next-generation crew launch vehicle, called Chang Zheng 10. Previously, it was referred to as Chang Zheng 5G, or 921 Rocket.
Over the year, tests successfully verified the grid fin design and the core stage oxygen delivery system. China also tested the YF-100k first-stage engine, with a combined test duration of 3,300 seconds. In May, on the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program Phase 4 plans, it was officially revealed that Chang Zheng 10 would be the main rocket for the program.
With Chang Zheng 9 out of the critical path for the lunar program, it is now being developed closer to the inspiration of Starship again. Long Lehao confirmed a reusable first stage powered by 30 200-tonne methane engines similar to SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster in addition to long-term plans for second stage reuse, similar to Starship.
Current NOTAMs expect China to kick off the new year on Jan. 5, with the launch of an unknown Kuaizhou 1A mission. Chang Zheng 7 will then also fly, a few days later, to deliver new cargo to the Tiangong Space Station.
Another science mission, very early in the year, is the expected launch of the Einstein Probe, which will be used to survey X-ray and high energy flashes in cosmic events. Part of this mission is supported by the European Space Agency, as they supplied the mirror module for the FXT instrument, as well as a ground station, science management support, and the FXT instrument itself, supported by the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
The next crew rotation, Shenzhou 18, is expected no earlier than May, with another rotation probably planned in November. The rest of the year remains mostly unannounced, as in typical Chinese Spaceflight habit, launches get announced close to launch, or after launch.
(Lead Image: ZhuQue-2, close to liftoff. Credit: LandSpace)