China Eyes Reusable Boosters, Lifting Bodies & Foreign Launch Sites

Long March 5 on the launch pad. (Credit: China National Space Administration)

China’s surging space program is developing reusable launch vehicles and the construction of equatorial spaceports to better compete on the international market.

The processes under development include parachute-landing and propulsion-landing, said Lu Yu, director of Science and Technology Committee of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) at the Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX 2017).

Reusable lift-body launchers will be developed in three stages — rocket-engine partial reusable vehicle, rocket-engine full reusable vehicle and combined cycle-engine reusable vehicle, said Lu….

According to Lu, a low-cost commercial medium launch vehicle, the Long March-8. is under development, and based on the Long March-8, a new high-orbit medium launch vehicle should be designed to improve the Long March series and enhance competitiveness.

China will also enhance cooperation by renting foreign launch sites to improve launch flexibility, building international launch sites at equatorial regions, and developing sea-based launch platforms with other countries, he said.

Read the full story.

  • duheagle

    Chinese big talk is more credible than Russian big talk because the Chinese, at least for now, have money. But I noticed a lack of any timeline for most of these putative new development projects. The exception was Long March 9, an SLS+ heavy lifter which has been rumored for quite awhile and was formally announced last December – with first launch in 2030, a date reiterated in the linked Xinhua story. And Long March 9, like SLS, is not reusable.

    2030 seems like a long way off, but it probably represents a pretty aggressive target considering all the to-do list items the Chinese need to accomplish to build Long March 9. Foremost among these are building a 1+ million lbf kerolox engine for LM9’s 1st stage and a J2-class or better hydrolox engine for its 2nd stage. Relative to the U.S., the Chinese are starting with a prior art handicap of over a half century. A 14 year development schedule – measured from the LM9 announcement date – doesn’t look too pokey considered in its full context.

    Where reusability is concerned, China looks to be following a “let 100 flowers bloom” approach of throwing everything against the wall in the hopes something will stick. Their reusability laundry list includes every technology either in service now or in development in the West including something that sounds very Skylon-ish.

    I await further developments.

  • Tom Billings

    Think of it this way, …China is competing with Richard Shelby’s Space Program!

    The Heavy Lifter is scheduled for the same time frame that the “ultimate” version of SLS is scheduled for, while there is a smaller partially reusable system that would compete with a partially reusable Vulcan. Of course, both of these US offerings are to be built in company facilities in Huntsville, under fealty to the Alabama congressional delegation. Shelby would have no problem with a US Skylon equivalent, as long as its
    R&D and production was done East of Florence and West of Scottsboro
    along the Tennessee River. There exists no rocket-building in the PRC that is *not* under the fealty of the Military Affairs Committee, the ultimate power in China.

    Whether the MAC has Shelby’s “inspirational” goals for a Space Program more firmly in hand than he does, they also include more quietly the ASAT and other military space programs that have been mooted over the last 15 years as well. The LBJians like Shelby in Congress may envy the unquestioned funding authority of the MAC in the next 5 years.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Musk will have competition sooner or later.

  • JamesG

    ” Relative to the U.S., the Chinese are starting with a prior art handicap of over a half century. ”

    Of course they do have pretty much free run of our IP catalog, and can buy anything from the Russians, so that compensates a lot.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    On reusability, I don’t think their hearts are in it. They prefer to paint themselves up against the big boys of old space who are still trying to find a less cheap way of doing it. The word just got thrown in there so people stop goddamn asking.

  • duheagle

    I can’t say that you’re wrong about that. That would certainly be consistent with the “I cover the waterfront” nature of the latest announcements – especially the lack of any timeline on anything except Long March 9.

  • duheagle

    And they still might choose to buy stuff from the Russians if they get stuck. Thus far, though, there’s not much evidence for Russian tech in their launchers. They mostly still use hypergolics. That’s legacy technology from their initial foray into pilfered U.S. rocketry IP – specifically, the Titan 2.

    The Chinese could cut quite a bit off the Long March 9 development schedule, for example, by simply lining up alongside ULA as a buyer of RD-180’s. That they – at least so far as we know – haven’t availed themselves of any of Energia’s good engines to this point suggests the Chinese have decided they must pay the price of developing such know-how on their own for long-term security and autarky reasons and are willing to tolerate the longer development schedules this entails. This pretty much has to be China’s call as it seems inconceivable the Russians wouldn’t be willing to sell them pretty much anything in the Roscosmos catalog.

  • duheagle

    Thus far, it’s looking a lot more like later than sooner.

  • duheagle

    The Chinese domestic economy couldn’t be put on anything even approximating a rational basis until Mao died. Perhaps transitioning NASA fully to a rational economic model must also await the passing of a powerful dinosaur, Sen. Shelby.

    Time, it would seem, is not on the side of the ancien regime. They didn’t manage to stomp on the “furry little mammal” SpaceX when it was still little or on the “dissidents” within NASA who wanted to actually get stuff done, as opposed to just be put under perpetual contract.

    SpaceX has now grown up to be something much closer to a sabre-toothed tiger than a cute little mouse-y. Fatally attacking “kitty” is no longer much of a possibility. That explains the lack of any serious recent attempts – no one wants to be the one to pointlessly lose a major appendage. Even second-level efforts, such as trying to strong-arm ULA into picking AR-1 over BE-4 have been quickly walked back.

    A few more years of current trends simply continuing – and not very many years – will see us to a place where the Shelbys of the world won’t matter even if they’re not yet dirt-napping. Neither will whatever the Chinese are doing.

    Minor quibble: Not much of either SLS or Vulcan will actually be built in Huntsville. Vulcan will be built in Decatur. As Shelby represents the whole state of Alabama, that won’t matter to him. He couldn’t get SLS production moved to Alabama, but he did manage to get major SLS component testing largely moved to Huntsville. I think we have likely seen the high water mark of the SLS pork flood in AL.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Those attacking the SpaceX kitty learned relatively harmlessly. Those attacking the Tesla kitty are a little bit slower, and are $10B down for it. https://www.rt.com/business/391433-elon-musk-tesla-shares/
    I don’t fully understand what’s going on over there, but it’s not pretty. Meanwhile, I’m thinking of what Musk could have done with that $10B.

  • passinglurker

    I look at it like this china has an interest in keeping up both commercially (longmarch 8) and with alabama (longmarch 9), but not in getting ahead. Getting ahead would trigger a space race as america spaz’s out and leaps ahead in accomplishments and technology to desperately stay “number 1” which would take a lot of time and money to catch up with whereas being just a step behind gets china most of the benefits for a fraction of the cost.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Makes sense, I guess.

  • redneck

    I’d go even money on four years to serious competition that is not Blue.

  • duheagle

    If I had any money, I’d take you up on that. Over the next four years Blue is the only outfit with even an outside shot.

  • duheagle

    Proving what we already knew – namely, that the supply of JamesGs vastly exceeds the supply of Elon Musks.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    LOL! Didn’t know bro. James was in that lot 😀

  • redneck

    I was thinking steak dinner kind of money, not development enabling kind. But a cup of coffee black, no sugar, is acceptable stakes if we happen to be at a conference somewhere.

    Not arguing my opinion as it is clearly un-provable at this time, as is the counter. Just willing let proof happen.

  • windbourne

    while Russia is more than happy to sell a lot of things to China, there are a number that they will not. Basically, anything of recent weaponry, they are not willing to sell, knowing full well that China will copy it and then sell on the market against Russia (and win).

  • windbourne

    Maybe much later, but at this time, none of these nations or companies (other than BO) are doing anything to develop true competition. SpaceX will have a true spaceliner in the F9/FH series in another 3 years, and will no doubt be testing their BFR, if not the full ITS.
    OTOH, none of these groups are doing more than talking about re-usability.
    ULA’s approach? Please.
    Russia is doing nothing.
    China? At this point appears to be nothing, though you can bet that they are working hard to get spies into SX and BO.

    Japan has been quiet so maybe they are up to some good R&D on it.

    But other than BO, I do not think that they will have much for a long time.