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China Space News Update - Issue #4

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones
Here’s a roundup of yet another very busy week (Feb. 22-28) in the Chinese space sector, including Chang'e-5 symbolism and substance, the colossal Long March 9, Tianwen-1 changing orbit, official stats from 2020, a launch and lots of news and developments flying under the radar.
Thanks for reading, please feel free to share, and let’s get into it.

Images of lunar samples delivered to Earth by Chang'e-5. Credit: CNSA/CLEP
Images of lunar samples delivered to Earth by Chang'e-5. Credit: CNSA/CLEP
From the Moon...and back again
Chang'e-5 substance
Xi Jinping led high-profile delegation including met representatives of the Chang'e-5 mission in the Great Hall of the People, hailing the success of the mission and emphasized the importance of embarking on the fourth phase of China’s lunar exploration program (Chang'e-6, 7, 8 and towards an International Lunar Research Station).
This celebration and show of support of space is no isolated event, but it also goes well beyond space exploration, as may be implied by the above visit.
Xi has spoken to Shenzhou crews while in space, opened up the space sector (with the aim of fostering innovation and economic growth), created a “China Space day” (April 24) to promote space to the public, and called for support for developing the space industry and China in a great space power, and coined the “China Space Dream” as an extension of his “China Dream” slogan.
Xi though, is mostly likely not some huge space fan or advocate, but recognises pragmatically, like Deng Xiaoping post-1978, that space is a key marker of national power, has big domestic legitimacy and soft power potential, and is an area in which China needed to advance or forever be left behind in the global context. And that’s without noting the military and defence side of affairs.
A small portion of the CE-5 samples have meanwhile gone on public display in Beijing.
Long March to the Moon
Next, as if to underline the support for space, the colossal Long March 9 – part of China’s plans for crewed lunar missions – is set for approval.
The interest started when Xi Jinping was pictured next to a model of the Long March 9, complete with a cool logo, during his Chang'e-5 visit. Then, a CCTV clip shows Wu Yanhua, deputy administrator at CNSA, stating that China’s super heavy-lift, near-100-metre-long, 9.5-10-metre-diameter core Long March 9 has been approved by the government. There has been no clear state media announcement, but that is probably in the post. It is likely being saved for show at the upcoming Two Sessions, China’s annual toughly two-week long parliamentary sessions.
A few notes on Long March 9 and its likely approval:
  • Luan Enjie, a senior space and lunar exploration program official, told state media in recent days that, “the assessment stage is almost completed, and we are now in the later stage of project approval. The country is working on it, and we are trying to start the research of the heavy-lift carrier rocket during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025)”.
  • Success with the Chang'e missions in recent years and recent breakthroughs on 500 ton-thrust kerolox and 220-ton thrust hydrolox staged combustion cycle engines mean China is confident in moving forward.
  • Figures vary, but the Long March 9 will be capable of lifting ~140 metric tonnes to LEO and 50 tonnes into lunar transfer orbit appear regularly.
  • One contact stated that reusability would not be possible for early flights, but could not be ruled out for later versions.
  • Earlier CASC/CALT architectures for lunar missions involved a CZ-9 launch and a subsequent CZ-5B crew launch, with an Earth orbit rendezvous and docking ahead TLI. That looks like being updated and replaced.
  • Another rocket, unofficially nicknamed “921” after the project code for China’s human spaceflight program or “Long March Heavy” , featuring three, five-meter-diameter cores, could also be developed as the crew launcher.
News roundup
Tianwen-1 entered parking orbit after burn to lower its apoapsis late on Feb. 23. The spacecraft will now analyze the primary landing site within the southern portion of Utopia Planitia, with the rover landing attempt expected in May/June. First images from the science cameras are yet to be released, but could come with China’s big political showpiece this week.
Galactic Energy (星河动力), the fourth private Chinese company to attempt to reach orbit and the second to achieve it, is developing the Pallas-2, a Falcon Heavy-like kerolox booster with 21 engines and capable of lofting 14 tonnes to LEO, similar in capacity to Long March 7. Galactic Energy is targeting a test flight of Pallas-1, the single-core, seven-engine version, in late 2022.
Andrew Jones
Chinese commercial firm Galactic Energy aims to launch its VTVL kerolox Pallas-1 launcher by end of 2022. Beyond that, behold the 3-core, 21-engine Pallas-2, capable of 14 tonnes to LEO. Say no more. Source: https://t.co/lZYox7AuX0 https://t.co/j8fwt9NFDM
The info comes from an article published by a partner of Essential Capital, an investor in Galactic Energy. The long piece details its reasoning for backing the firm, including its management (with experience from CALT), the relative maturity over kerolox (over methalox) rocket engines and variable thrust tech, and the apparent demand from numerous planned Chinese constellations, including a mystery ~13,000-satellite, state-backed constellation known as “GW”.
Who’s counting?
China has over 300 satellites in orbit (Xinhua, Feb. 27) – Short article which does not get far into the array of constellations, capabilities and applications. The number itself does not say much; SpaceX, a private U.S. company, alone passed the 1,000 satellite mark in January.
For comparison, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Satellite Database has the following figures, updated in January, shows that China is well beyond Russia but far behind the U.S. in active satellites:
Total number of operating satellites: 3,372
  • United States: 1,897
  • Russia: 176
  • China: 412
  • Other: 887
Among those satellites are Chinese civilian and military remote sensing satellites, communications, Beidou navigation constellation, weather and likely early warning satellites in a range of orbits. Many of these have been launched over the past five years, over which China has greatly increased its launch rate.
CASC Blue Book on space activities 2020
A summary of 2020 activities from China’s main space contractor, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., (CASC), states that China launched 39 times in 2020, putting 89 spacecraft into orbit. The total payload was 103.06 tons, an increase of 29.3% over 2019. Of these CASC accounted for 34 launches missions in 2020, carrying launch 82 spacecraft and 99.2% of the total launch mass (102.25t). Chang'e-5, Tianwen-1, Long March 5B and Long March 8 debut launches, Beidou GNSS completion are noted among main achievements. It also reiterates the plans for 40+ launches in 2021 without adding many new details.
Chinese launch statistics and breakdown for 2020. Credit: CASC
Chinese launch statistics and breakdown for 2020. Credit: CASC
The chart above states CASC launched 23 times to LEO (31.13 tonnes), 1 to MEO (21.6t (prototype “New Generation Crew Spacecraft”), 8 to GTO (13.20t) and 2 (Tianwen-1, Chang'e-5) beyond Earth orbit. CASIC (4) and Galactic Energy (1) accounted for the final 5 launches, all to LEO.
Sources: CASC, full text: Chinese (via CGWIC)
CASIC
Yuan Jie, president of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Limited, a sister SOE to CASC, says the Kuaizhou-1A could return to flight soon following a failure last autumn, and the Kuaizhou-11, which failed in its first launch, could also launch again this year.
Yuan also says completion of a “basic constellation” of 12 satellites for the Xingyun LEO IoT will be completed by around 2022. CASIC has previously stated it wants 80 Xingyun satellites in orbit by 2023.
Launch
02:22 UTC Feb. 24: Yaogan-31 (03) trio of satellites launched on a Long March 4C from Jiuquan.
Orbits/IDs:
2021-014A/47691 in 1091 x 1100 km x 63.41°
2021-014B/47692 in 1090 x 1098 km x 63.41°
2021-014C/47693 in 1090 x 1098 km x 63.41°
Satellites are classified, but likely for military ocean reconnaissance. Reports: SpaceNews, CASC, SAST. Video: SciNews
New launch Facilities?
Satellite imagery accessed through Planet Labs indicates construction at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, near the Gobi Desert. New facilities are needed for new liquid methane-liquid oxygen launchers being developed by commercial companies, as well as for larger solid rockets from Expace/CASIC. More: Landspace closes in on orbital launch with liquid methane rocket
Recent construction at Jiuquan in recent months. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.
Recent construction at Jiuquan in recent months. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.
Reports, articles, links
IAF/CSA CubeSat competition: The International Astronautical Federation (IAF) in cooperation with the Chinese Society of Astronautics (CSA) and the Dalian University of Technology (DUT) announce an competition for students at IAF Member Universities for a free launch of a 1-3U CubeSat on a Long March of Jielong/Smart Dragon rocket.
Chinese Space engineering firm testing its production capacity, production to commence in March (Hindaily) Feb 25): This development is related to CASIC’s planned Hongyun constellation (H/T Larry Press)
Julie Klinger on China’s rare earth frontier (Sinica Podcast, Feb. 25): Fascinating discussion on the geographies and ubiquity of rare Earth elements. From 57:00 the conversation moves to the Moon and perspectives on mining and ISRU.
CASIC missile designer removed from the CPPCC, the consultative body of the “Two Sessions”, just days ahead of its opening.
FAST telescope detects 3 Fast Radio Bursts (NAOC, English version)
CASC develops new, long 3.35-meter-diameter long propellant storage tank using new assembly and welding technologies and techniques, to bring higher quality and lower cost (SAST)
Long March 6A test flight due this year, report says (China Daily)
A Long March 3B reentered over Queensland creating spectacular light show (ABC, 26.02)
Automaker Geely gains approval for satellites for self-driving constellation (SpaceNews)
Upcoming
March 2: Space Café webtalk with Blaine Curcio of Euroconsult to talk about China’s space sector (Spacewatch.global)
March 3 onwards: The Two Sessions: China’s roughly two-week-long annual “parliamentary” meetings. Usually there are many space-related reports, updates (and reiterations) – especially so this year as it marks the beginning of a new, 14th Five Year Plan.
March 6, ~07:00 UTC): Sunrise over the Chang'e-4 spacecraft in Von Kármán crater. Both the lander and Yutu-2 should be active by early March 8.
March 10 (14:00 GMT): Webinar: China’s space programme: A rising star, a rising challenge (King’s College London)
March 12 (est): Launch of the second Long March 7A from Wenchang.
Andrew Jones
Meanwhile, at Wenchang, China is quietly preparing for the return of the Long March 7A (~mid-March), which suffered a failed test flight in March 2020: https://t.co/2enLr4MxlM Images: China Space News: https://t.co/is7tGubZc4 https://t.co/VxcERHcz30
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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 SpaceNews.com correspondent Andrew Jones.

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