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China Space News Update #11: This week: Shenzhou-13 launch, FOBS, new hop test & exploration updates

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones
Updates, context and reports on China’s expanding space activities, with the latest civil, commercial, policy and exploration news.
Here’s the roundup for 11-17 October, 2021. Thanks for reading!

This week: Shenzhou-13 launch, FOBS, new hop test & exploration updates
Launch of the Long March 2F carrying Shenzhou-13 to orbit, featuring mach diamonds c reated by its hypergolic propellant mix. Credit: CMSA/Yang Jun
Launch of the Long March 2F carrying Shenzhou-13 to orbit, featuring mach diamonds c reated by its hypergolic propellant mix. Credit: CMSA/Yang Jun
Shenzhou-13 crew aboard Tianhe
Commander Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu (making his first trip to space) are now aboard the Tianhe space station core module for a six-month-long mission and the second crew for the verification phase for the Chinese Space Station. A Long March 2F lifted off from Jiuquan Friday UTC and docked with Tianhe 6.5 hours later, making a first Chinese radial rendezvous and docking (approaching from below rather than along the flight path).
What to expect:
  • 2-3 spacewalks
  • Space educational lectures from Wang Yaping and other outreach efforts
  • Testing the ability of Tianhe’s robotic arm to manipulate modules, moving these from forward to lateral docking ports
  • Deorbiting of Tianzhou-2
  • Science experiments
  • Shenzhou-14 to be on standby
Hypersonic glide vehicle test?
The Financial Times dropped an article on Saturday reporting that China had in August tested: “a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise,” citing five unnamed sources familiar with the launch.
The report triggered widespread reaction, including claims that this was a “Sputnik moment”. However, little is known about the actual test, and the US military had previously hinted that it was aware of related developments. Some have claimed this was a FOBS test (Fractional Orbital Bombardment System), in which a launch briefly reaches orbital velocity but, before completing a circuit, slows to hypersonic, travelling much lower than an ICBM and possibly being able to manoeuvre, making it more difficult to track and destroy, or attack from new angles, such as over Antarctica, avoiding tracking. FOBS is nuclear-weapons delivery system developed in the 1960s by the Soviet Union, so a Sputnik moment does not appear an apt analogy.
China’s Foreign Ministry on October 18 denied a test of such a system, stating that it launched, in July and not August, a space vehicle to test reusability. However, this is likely either a misunderstanding or misdirection, pointing to a previously announced (although secretive, as with all hypersonic capabilities) test of a reusable space transportation system. This test was likely the suborbital stage for a two-stage-to-orbit reusable spaceplane (nothing was tracked in orbit), which follows a September 2020 test which was the orbital stage of the system.
What had been spotted previously was a jump in numbers of Long March 2C rocket launches as declared by its maker, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), from 77 to 79 launches, meaning CALT tested something (a likely DF-ZH hypersonic test, which are counted by CALT as CZ-2C launches, but not by its owner CASC, China’s main space contractor, as an orbital, Long March launch) between July 19 and August 24 . Such previous tests were apparently tracked by US military and reported through the Washington Free Beacon. Sources for these are light (NB. there have been 58 announced CZ-2C launches to date, CALT says 79, so lots of hidden activity). China, US, North Korea and Russia are all engaged in hypersonic missile development.
To put this context, China developing FOBS would be, or is seen, as a rational reaction US development of missile defence systems, which is perceived by the PRC as decreasing Chinese deterrent, despite US statements that such systems are not targeting Chinese (or Russian) capabilities (some rationales put forward in this thread. An increase in one actor’s security diminishing that of others and triggering a response. This means, overall, that substantial money is being ploughed into various systems while bringing no increased security and exacerbating tensions between rivals.
There are lots of unknowns here, but lots of implications regardless. In the global context, this is neither a great nor unexpected development, though nothing really changes in the ability for nations to destroy each other. Managing responses will however be very important. It’s almost as if countries will need to find a way of interacting, understanding and co-exiting with each other…
Science and exploration
The Tianwen-1 Guidance, Navigation, and Control for Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing (Space: Science & Technology) – a breakdown of the Zhurong EDL, proving the system. Notably, in the future, China will target areas that have higher scientific value, more rugged terrain, and higher elevations.
2021 Xiangyu Huang et al. Distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0).
2021 Xiangyu Huang et al. Distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0).
The Chinese H-alpha Solar Explorer (CHASE) launched on October 14, along with 10 smaller satellites for a range of developers and operators (including Shenzhen DFH, HKTAG, Insight Positioning, Shanghai Lizheng Satellite, APSCO, Beihang University and HEAD Aerospace). The launch also saw the first use of grid fins on the Long March 2D in order to constrain the “drop zone” downrange from the inland Taiyuan launch centre. Sources: SpaceNews, CNSA
Characteristics of the lunar samples returned by Chang’E-5 mission: Once again, expected KREEP material not found in samples (National Science Review)
Geomorphologic exploration targets at the Zhurong landing site (EPSL)
Commercial space
Deep Blue Aerospace conducts 100-meter VTVL rocket test: Chinese private launch Deep Blue Aerospace completed a 103.2-metre level launch and landing test with its Nebula-M1 VTVL test stage, following up on a 10-metre in July. Despite a wobbly landing, the test was a success. Flight data is being examined to determine the next steps, while the Nebula M2 being prepared for more ambitious tests. Sources: SpaceNews, DBA.
Andrew Jones
Pretty cool footage of a 100 metre altitude vertical takeoff, vertical landing test by Chinese launch startup Deep Blue Aerospace today, following a 10-metre test in July. [DBA]
Is solid rocket and military equipment maker OneSpace aiming for an IPO? (36kr)
Commercial rocket company Space Pioneer is recruiting following recent funding rounds. (Space Pioneer)
Space Pioneer also produced its first aluminium alloy 3350 mm diameter liquid oxygen tank for its future Tianlong rockets. (Space Pioneer)
Short update on the development of the new Xiangshan commercial launch site in Ningbo (CNNB)
Articles, updates
India needs to avoid Moon Trap - India should focus on its own priorities, delayed by COVID-19, and not get sucked into either Artemis nor ILRS. (Op-ed, Financial Express)
CASC’s Wu Yansheng: Accelerate the construction of a space power (CASC)
CGWIC announces a focus on three market directions: 1) The small GEO HTS DFH-3E platform, to be used first for Apstar-6E in 2022; 2) Rideshares; and 3) a micro/nano satellite online ecosystem to provide customers with convenient, fast one-stop solutions. (CASC)
Space Universities CubeSat Challenge regional finals held (China Daily)
Analyst uses radar imagery to shed additional light on Chinese missile sites (SpaceNews)
International Collaboration and Competition in Space: Oversight of NASA’s Role and Programs (U.S. Senate)
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Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones @AJ_FI

A weekly roundup of developments in the nebulous but energetic Chinese space sector. Created by freelance space reporter and correspondent Andrew Jones.

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