Landspace has successfully hopped its ZhuQue-3 hopper prototype. The hop was confirmed early on Friday, and is part of the demonstration of reusable rocket technology, on the path to the company ZhuQue-3, first stage reusable vehicle.
In addition, several high-profile missions were conducted in a short period. First, the ESA/China cooperation project of Einstein Probe was successfully launched atop a Chang Zheng 2C. Then, OrienSpace successfully launched its Gravity-1 rocket for the first time, followed shortly after by the latest launch to the Tiangong Station.
Early in the afternoon on Thursday, rumors appeared on social media, that Landspace was going to perform its first hop later in the evening. The pathfinder hopper was announced after the conclusion of the third ZhuQue-2 launch campaign, as a demonstrator technology for the company’s upcoming ZhuQue-3 rocket.
I'm slightly puzzled at that none of the similar vehicles we have seen uses such an umbilical release mechanism, but it does look cool: pic.twitter.com/CiG4VMfks3
— Cosmic Penguin (@Cosmic_Penguin) January 19, 2024
In preparation for the hop, LandSpace constructed a small landing pad, next to their main launch pad, which can support such hop tests. This was first spotted by satellite imagery, tasked by Harry Stranger. After the flight of ZhuQue-2, Landspace then announced, that they were going for a hop around the end of the year. Frequent satellite coverage of the area showed a delay to that plan, as until this Friday, no hop was performed.
The hop itself went to 350 meters and performed a small translation maneuver to the landing pad. The hope is called “ZQ-3 VTVL-1” which refers to “Vertical Takeoff – Vertical Landing”. It uses a single TQ-12 methane engine, which is also used on the current ZQ-2 rocket. The engine can throttle between 50-110% of the normal 80 tons of thrust, giving it a throttle range between 40 and 88 tons. The performed flight went on for roughly 60 seconds. The weight of the hopper is 50.3 tons.
Landpace confirmed the landing precision with 2.4 meters, with a landing speed of 0.75 meters per second, at a pitch angle of roughly 0.14 degrees, and a roll angle of 4.4 degrees. The hopper survived the hop and is already being inspected after the flight.
Down the line, this hopper program will lead to ZhuQue-3. A medium-to-heavy lift launch vehicle, powered by methane, and constructed out of stainless steel. The rocket will use the updated TQ-12A engines and plans a reusable first stage, that can support up to 20 flights. The full size of the rocket will be 76.6 meters, with a diameter of 4.5 meters. The debut of this rocket is planned for 2025.
On Wednesday, Jan. 17, Tianzhou 7 was launched on a Chang Zheng 7, to the Tiangong Space Station. Liftoff happened at 14:27 UTC and was performed from Launch Complex 201, at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in China.
This was the first time since the building of the Tiangong Station, that a Tianzhou spacecraft performed a three-hour launch and automated docking plan. Tianzhou 5 performed the even faster two-hour approach profile. Docking was confirmed at 17:46 UTC, just three hours and 19 minutes later. The spacecraft was docked at the Tianhe aft port.
About the Payloads
The resupply includes a cargo mass of about 5,600 kilograms, which also includes roughly 90 kilograms of fresh fruits for the astronauts. There is also equipment for several Chinese festivals in the upcoming months, living supplies, fresh clothing, and scientific instruments included.
#Tianzhou7 carries spare parts & maintenance parts for space station equipment, scientific experiment payloads &propellant, living supplies, clothing & food for taikonauts.
Nearly 90kg #freshfruit are aboard the spacecraft. There are also some gift packages of festivals.
— Wu Lei (@wulei2020) January 17, 2024
Part of this launch campaign was a science group of the 8108 science popularization satellite engineering practice team of Hangzhou Wenhai Middle School. Before launch, they got to experience astronaut operations. Like the astronauts, they would start eating at seven, and then enter the working factory at eight to perform demo experiments.
Part of this operation was the Bayi 08 star payload, which is a satellite launched on this mission. It will perform Earth-to-Earth experiments, moon-to-sun photography, radio communications, audio and file transmission to the Earth, and a rapid de-orbit ejection test. It will operate at an orbital altitude of 380 kilometers.
Tianhzou as a capsule is 17.9 meters long, 4.2 meters in maximum diameter, and has an on-orbit mass of up to 13,500 kg if used with full payload capacity. The crafts are all equipped with a service module with flight control. Propulsion, and steering. It features 15 cubic meters of cargo space. It is equipped with two solar panels on the side, for power.
Besides the purpose of carrying cargo to the Tiangong Space Station, it also features the ability to occasionally reboost the station, to keep it in the desired orbit. Without these reboosts, the Tiangong Station would fall back to Earth. On this flight, 1,750 kilograms of propellant is carried.
The Tiangong space station (Chinese for “Palace in the Sky”) is the currently operated space station by China. It consists of the Tianhe core module and the Wentian and Mengtian laboratory cabin modules.
The space station masses about 100,000 kilograms, has a length of 55.6 meters, and a diameter of 39 meters. It operates at an orbital altitude of 390 km, with an orbital inclination of 41.47 degrees.
Down the line, the station will be built up even more, with the addition of the Xuntian Space Telescope module.
About Chang Zheng 7
Chang Zheng 7 stands 53.1 meters tall, with a diameter of 3.35 meters. It features four side-mounted boosters, that are 2.25 meters in diameter each. At liftoff, the mass of the system is 597,000 kilograms.
The rocket is part of the new class of modern rockets and is taking the role of the next-generation cargo rocket for the Tiangong Space Station. With its heavy lift capacity to low-Earth orbit, of about 13,500 kilograms, it is one of the most capable rockets, ever built by China.
For the first stage flight, it uses six YF-100 engines, that utilize the combination of rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen. Each of them produces 1,200 kilonewtons of thrust, with a specific impulse of 300 seconds.
On Jan. 11, at 05:30 UTC, the OrienSpace build Gravity-1 rocket was launched. The solid-based launch vehicle lifted off from the Haiyang Spaceport, in Chinese Coastal Waters. In a rare event for Chinese rocket launches, this event was publicly broadcast.
The payload for the mission was three Yunyao-1 weather satellites, which will perform atmospheric measurements using GNSS radio occultation for a Tianjin-based company. Down the line, the expectation is that the Yunyao weather constellation will feature 90 satellites. The mission was confirmed to be successful.
Gravity-1 can lift about 6,500 kilograms into a low-Earth orbit, or 3,700 kg into a Sun-synchronous orbit. Orienspace was just founded in 2020, and bought available solid rocket modules, to assemble a rocket from it. The solid rocket motors are built by the Academy of Aerospace Solid Propulsion Technology, which is a state-owned program, overseen by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.
The rocket is 31.4 meters high, has two different-sized payload fairings, and at liftoff masses of about 400 tonnes. Down the line, OrienSpace plans two further Gravity rockets. Gravity-2 is planned to double the payload capacity over, while Gravity-3 plans to increase it to over 30 tonnes to LEO.
In international cooperation, a Chinese Chang Zheng 2C lifted the Chinese/European Einstein Probe to low-Earth orbit. The 1,450 kg heavy payload will be used to research X-ray astronomy and detect high-energy flashes of cataclysmic cosmic events, such as supernovae, and energy rays.
The launch happened on Jan. 9, at 7:03 UTC, and was confirmed successful. The launch pad for this mission was the Launch Complex 3, at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China.
About Einstein Probe
Einstein Probe is named after the German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. The project is led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and both the ESA and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) contributed part of the mission.
It is equipped with two instruments. The wide-field X-ray telescope, and the follow-up X-ray Telescope. The lobster eyes of the wide-field allow the telescope to observe up to one-tenth of the celestial sphere in a single glance, while the follow-up telescope will then spot the sources of X-rays, and further analyze them.
10% of the data gathered by the probe will be available for ESA and the MPE. This is in exchange for the contributions to the mission. After the successful launch, the operations team will take six months to test and calibrate the instruments. After the initial preparation phase, the probe is expected to operate for at least three years.
(Featured Image: Hopper of ZhuQue-3 flies. Credit: LandSpace)