China Roundup: Chinese Moon plans, commercial company updates, and Wenchang commercial pad

by Adrian Beil

China provided several updates to its lunar exploration plans, while private companies like LandSpace and Space Pioneer are also getting closer to milestones. Meanwhile, the commercial complex in Wenchang is getting ready to host private Chinese rockets.

China details lunar exploration further

In a recent presentation, China detailed its lunar exploration plan for the near future and gave an outlook for the program beyond that. The next mission to the Moon, Queqiao-2, launched in March of this year. This mission, though, is only the beginning of a set of missions for the Chinese lunar exploration plan. Next up, the Chang’e-6 mission, a 53-day long exploration mission, will launch in May of this year on a Chang Zheng 5 rocket.

With Chang’e-6, China is hoping to return a lunar sample from the far side of the Moon. In a 53-day operation, the spacecraft will land on the lunar surface, collect a surface sample, and return to Earth using a capsule-parachute system. The spacecraft is already at the launch site and being prepared for the launch in the upcoming months.

Overview of China’s lunar exploration plan. (Credit: CNSA)

Chang´e-7, the follow-up mission, will then focus on environmental and resource surveys of the lunar south pole. The mission is comprised of four main components: an orbiter, lander, rover, and hopper. The orbiter will provide analytic and relay support for the probes. The lander will conduct the soft landing on the moon and host scientific research itself. Aboard the lander will be the rover and the hopper, which will be used to conduct science operations at the Shackleton crater.

This mission will also use the Chang Zheng 5 rocket and is expected to launch in 2026.

For Chang´e-8, China will conduct an in situ resource utilization (ISRU) demonstration. In future missions, ISRU will be used to generate resources on the Moon’s surface, supporting long-term sustainable exploration of the surface.

The spacecraft for this mission will also potentially go to the Shackleton crater, although three other landing locations are being considered. The spacecraft is expected to launch around 2028, and China is seeking international cooperation for this mission. This mission will also be launched on a Chang Zheng 5.

Beyond that, China also talked about its International Lunar Research Station, which plans to be a station on the surface of the Moon in the 2030s. A crewed lunar landing by China remains on track before 2030. Similar to plans from NASA and other agencies, China plans to use the Moon as a testbed for its 2040s exploration plans of Mars and beyond.

Space Pioneer conducts hot fire testing for Tianlong-4

The Tianlong-3 rocket from Space Pioneer is taking shape. In a recent update, the company confirmed that the rocket is in assembly and integration and described a major design change. While initially proposed with seven engines, the update confirms that the rocket will feature nine TH-12 engines in the future. So far, the company has produced 41 of the TH-12 engines.

Tianlong-3 is a medium-lift orbital rocket designed to be partially reusable. The first stage, similar to Falcon 9, will try to perform an autonomous vertical landing maneuver and initially aim to be reusable up to ten times.

The rocket will have a thrust of roughly 7.6 meganewtons and operate using liquid oxygen and RP-1. Initially announced in 2023, the rocket is already closing in on its first test flight in July 2024, though the first test flight will not feature a reusable first stage. According to an interview with Chinese media, Space Pioneer plans to assemble and test the first rocket in April and ship it to Wenchang.

Pad-2 in Hainan Wenchang makes progress

With commercial space activity in China beginning to ramp up, the commercial launch complex at the Wenchang spaceport is making progress. Also known as the “Wenchang Commercial Space Launch Site,” Complex 2 will be used for the launch of rockets such as Tianlong-3.

Recently, the water tower for the operation of a pad deluge system and other pad systems was erected at the launch site. The pad is aiming for commercial readiness in June 2024 — just in time to support upcoming rockets, such as Tianlong-3, to launch from the sea-side launch center.

Compared to other Chinese launch complexes, Wenchang is not located inland, meaning rockets are not flying over populated areas — a great advantage for a spaceport set to host commercial space companies who will be testing rockets, engines, and more. 

LandSpace’s ZhuQue-2 TQ15A delivered

Recently, LandSpace, the first company to successfully launch a methane-powered rocket into orbit, spoke with Chinese media and provided several updates on ZhuQue-2 and other company operations. 

The first update concerns the recent test hop of the Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing hopper earlier this year. The company is trying to develop reusable rocket technology for its upcoming ZhuQue-3 rocket, and the hopper is used to understand the dynamics of the flights that ZhuQue-3 will complete. The company published additional footage of the methane and liquid oxygen-powered hopper from a pad ground camera, from which the hop can be observed.

In another update, LandSpace responded to a recent explosion in one of its facilities. According to the company, during a cryo burst test, a tank ruptured at 0.65 megapascal, which was expected. Unfortunately, some shattered glass resulted in a mishap, with three minor injuries among the test crew. However, the company confirms that no severe or fatal injuries happened during the mishap. 

In a final update, LandSpace confirmed that the first ZhuQue-2 TQ15A upper stage was delivered to the assembly location. The new upper stage features many upgrades, including eliminating the veneer thrusters, which caused the failure during the first flight of ZhuQue-2. With this update, LandSpace aims to increase the ZhuQue-2’s total payload capacity to four tons into a Sun-synchronous orbit.

Chinese launch cadence in 2024

China recently provided an update on the country’s space activities and capabilities in 2024, including information about the planned 2024 launch cadence, capabilities, and new rockets.

Regarding the 2024 launch cadence, the country plans to launch roughly 100 rockets this year. Of these, 70 would be from nationally-produced rockets, which means that roughly 30 commercial launches are planned for this year.

The update also includes information on two major rocket debuts planned for 2024. One of these rockets is the upgraded “C” version of Chang Zheng 6, which is planned to launch on March 26. Chang Zheng 12 is also planned to debut in 2024. The medium-sized launch vehicle, which aims to lift 10 tons to LEO, is planned to launch sometime later this year.

Chang Zheng 8 | Queqiao-2

On Wednesday, March 20, at 00:31 UTC, a Chang Zheng 8 launched the Queqiao-2 relay satellite. In a rare occurrence, and thanks to the fact that this rocket launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Site, news organizations and the public were able to view and stream the launch. 

The coverage of the launch confirmed the successful spacecraft separation, antenna deployment, and solar array extension of the spacecraft, and China confirmed that the launch was a full success. The launch was placed into a trans-lunar injection trajectory and will help to provide relay capabilities for the Chinese lunar efforts in the next few years. The first mission to utilize the spacecraft’s capabilities will be the aforementioned Chang’e 6 mission.

In the future, the spacecraft’s orbit will be adjusted to better support operations for China’s upcoming missions to the lunar south pole. The vehicle will then enter a 12-hour orbit around the Moon.

China also launched the Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2 payloads as secondary payloads on this mission. These two satellites, assembled by CNSA’s Deep Space Exploration Laboratory, will test cis-lunar space navigation and satellite-to-satellite communications.

Chang Zheng 5 | TJSW-11

Chang Zheng 5, China’s largest rocket currently in operation, launched the TJSW-11 communication satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) on Friday, February 23, at 11:30 UTC from the LC-101 launch complex at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in China.

Chang Zheng 5 piercing through the clouds. (Credit: CASC)

Due to the highly classified nature of the mission, nothing is known about the payload other than that it is a communications technology test satellite. Given the use of a Chang Zheng 5 to launch the payload, many believe the payload is quite large and heavy. 

Chang Zheng 3B/E | WHG-01

Continuing the trend of unknown satellites launching on Chinese rockets, a Chang Zheng 3B/E launched the WHG-01 satellite to GTO on February 29 at 13:03 UTC. The satellite’s name translates to “Satellite Internet — High Orbit Satellite 01,” leaving many to believe that the satellite will test a new internet constellation technology. 

The launch was conducted from Launch Complex 2 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China.

Chang Zheng 2D/YZ-3 | Yunhai-2 Group 02

A Chang Zheng 2D, featuring a YZ-3 upper stage, launched the Yunhai-2 Group 02 meteorological satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO) at 5:27 UTC from the 9401 Site (or SLS-2) at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China.

The payloads are part of a constellation to collect atmospheric data for weather predictions, research of the atmosphere and ionosphere, and other climate and gravity-related research, including through the use of Global Navigation Satellite System – Radio Occultation (GNSS-RO) instruments. During this mission, six Yunhai-2 satellites were deployed.

Chang Zheng 2C/YZ-1S | DRO-A/B

In a rare partial launch failure, China encountered issues during the launch of the DRO-A/B mission atop the Chang Zheng 2C rocket on March 13. The spacecraft was designed to perform communication and navigation testing around the Moon, using a third satellite in LEO for communications. Unfortunately, in a statement released by China, it was confirmed that the upper stage of the Chang Zheng 2C rocket experienced an issue and was not able to insert the test satellite into the planned orbit.

Part of the mission is still salvageable as some of the planned testing can still be conducted, even with a lower release altitude. The launch occurred on March 13, at 12:51 UTC, from the Launch Complex 3 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China.

Chang Zheng  2C | Geely Constellation Group 02

A Chang Zheng 2C took flight from Launch Complex 3 at Xichang with 11 Geely Constellation Group 2 satellites on Friday, February 2, at 23:37 UTC. The Geely constellation is used for testing autonomous driving and inter-vehicle communication and the ways in which satellites can assist with that technology. The constellation’s first batch, featuring nine satellites, was launched in 2022. Down the line, the constellation is planned to have 72 satellites total, eventually assisting autonomous driving in China.

Jielong-3 | Nine satellites

A Jielong-3 rocket lifted off from a platform in China’s coastal waters on February 3 at 03:06 UTC. The launch platform for this mission was the Bo Run Jiu Zhou Barge, and the destination orbit was a SSO. The mission featured nine rideshare payloads, including the LEO component of the previously-mentioned DRO experiment and several other research and communication satellites.

Kinetica 1 | Third Flight

A Kinetica 1 rocket, taking flight for the third time, was launched from MSite 130 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on January 22, at 4:03 UTC. The launch carried five Taijing satellites, which the company MINOSPACE uses to conduct spatial observation. Further details were not released.

(Lead image: A Chang Zheng 5 on the pad in Wenchang. Credit: CNSA)

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