China Roundup: ZhuQue-3 moves left, Tianlong-3 gets engines, and Chang Zheng rockets launch


China’s upcoming and already operational startup aerospace companies are showing significant progress as of late. Both Tianlong-3 and ZhuQue-3 (ZQ-3) are getting closer to flight, while governmental rockets currently carry the payloads. Additionally, three more rockets of the Chang Zheng family have been launched in the last few weeks.

LandSpace progresses ZhuQue-3 and moves maiden flight to the left

LandSpace recently announced that the development of its ZhuQue-3 rocket is progressing faster than expected. The program’s chief engineer detailed in an interview that the first launch is moving forward, from late to mid-2025. He also revealed that the company now aims to achieve its first successful recovery of the rocket’s first stage during the maiden flight.

ZhuQue-3 will be able to launch 18.3 tonnes to low-Earth orbit (LEO) with its first stage being recovered by a barge downrange of the launch site, or 12.5 tonnes if a return-to-launch-site (RTLS) profile is used instead. LandSpace is already conducting vertical takeoff-vertical landing (VTVL) tests at the Jiuquan facility which, according to the company’s CEO, are building towards a ten-kilometer hop. With ZhuQue-3, LandSpace aims to be able to reduce the cost of carrying payloads to $2,800 per kilogram, compared to $8,500 with its current launch vehicle, ZhuQue-2.

LandSpace also recently confirmed in a social media post on Weibo that the first stainless steel bodies are being manufactured for the new rocket. The ring section, visible in the social media posts, is seen being stacked using a similar method to the SpaceX Starship assembly process. On one of the rings, several stringers can be spotted, which are used to reinforce the tank body.

Several observers of the Chinese space program have pointed out that these ring sections might not be the full 4.5-meter diameter of the ZhuQue-3 rocket — and therefore these might only be test rings. The company has not made any statement clarifying an intention to use such an approach.

Satellite images of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center have shown indications that early construction of the ZhuQue-3 launch pad is underway. So far, the work is only at the stage of clearing ground next to LandSpace’s existing facility. The company has confirmed on social media that the pad for the ZhuQue-3 rocket is indeed under construction.

ZhuQue-3 requires new facilities due to significant differences compared to the currently operational ZhuQue-2 rocket, which was the first methane-fueled rocket to successfully reach orbit. LandSpace will continue to operate ZhuQue-2 while developing the reusable ZhuQue-3 rocket for future launches.

Deep Blue Aerospace hot-fire tests VTVL hopper

Deep Blue Aerospace is approaching the first flight of its Xingyun-1 (Nebula-1) rocket. Its partially reusable design now has a year-long history of static fire and hop tests. With the company scaling up its prototypes, it looks like an orbital launch is getting closer.

Deep Blue has already completed a one-kilometer hop with a VTVL vehicle and recently completed a static-fire test ahead of another jump targeting a higher altitude.

The Xingyun-M1 test stage conducted its first 10-second static fire test in July 2021 before moving to a variable thrust hot fire a few weeks later. One year later, the same hopper conducted another hop, which successfully touched down again after reaching an altitude of one kilometer.

Deep Blue’s hopper carries out its static fire test (Credit: Deep Blue Aerospace)

The next flight test, coming up soon, will use a 3.35-meter diameter vehicle and the actual engines that are planned for the first orbital launch. It will ascend as high as 10 kilometers before recovery is again attempted. If this test is successful, it will clear the way for the first orbital launch — which will also include recovery of the first stage — which is scheduled to occur as early as late 2024.

The hopper that will be used for this flight conducted a series of hot fire tests recently. Videos of these tests show each of the hopper’s three engines being fired individually, before a simultaneous static fire at a later stage of the test program.

Deep Blue is also developing the Xingyun-2 kerolox rocket, which it plans to launch in late 2025. This vehicle is expected to have similar capabilities to ZhuQue-3 and will be able to lift up to 20,000 kilograms of payload into LEO.

Tianlong-3 inches closer to flight

Another competitor in China’s heated private commercial launch market is inching closer to flight as well. The Tianlong-3 rocket will be able to lift up to 17 tonnes to LEO and 14 tonnes to Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). It is designed to be partially reusable in a similar way to the Falcon 9, attempting to land either on sea assets or back at the launch site.

Tianlong-3’s first stage is powered by nine Tianhuo-12 (TH-12) engines, each producing a thrust of 1,090 kN. This will exceed the power of Falcon 9 at liftoff. Initially, the rocket was planned to fly with seven TH-12 engines, but its developers, Space Pioneer, later increased that number to nine.

Tianlong-3’s engine section (Credit: Space Pioneer)

A detailed view of these engines was recently provided, as Space Pioneer confirmed that all nine engines have been integrated into a structure similar to SpaceX’s Octaweb, and are being prepared for test-firing as early as this month to pave the way for a launch in the summer. No attempt to recover the rocket is to be made during this first launch.

Chang Zheng 6A | Yunhai 3-02

On March 26, at 22:51 UTC, a Chang Zheng 6A rocket was launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center. The rocket carried the Yunhai 3-02 satellite, reported to be for ocean, environmental, atmospheric, and spatial parameter research. Besides its intended use for meteorological purposes, nothing else has been disclosed by the Chinese space authorities. The launch was reported to have been successful, placing the satellite into SSO.

The Chang Zheng 6A rocket features two YF-100 RP-1 engines on its center core and is equipped with four additional solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that provide additional thrust. The center core can produce up to 2,376 kN of thrust, while each of the boosters adds another 1,214 kN. Overall, the rocket can lift up to 4,500 kg into a 700-km SSO.

First flown in 2022, the rocket has since carried out five successful missions. It is based on the Chang Zheng 6 rocket, which does not feature the additional SRBs.

Yunhai-3 02 launches aboard Chang Zheng 6A

Chang Zheng 2D | Yaogan 42-01

Another launch was conducted on April 2, from Launch Complex 3 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. This time, a Chang Zheng 2D was used to carry the Yaogan 42-01 remote sensing satellite. This mission took flight at 23:56 UTC and successfully reached LEO.

Besides the name, nothing was revealed about the payload. Yaogan satellites are classified military satellites operated by China, and are usually used for reconnaissance purposes, or technology development.

Chang Zheng 2D | SuperView Neo 3-01

A second Chang Zheng 2D was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China. This launch carried a less clandestine payload, the SuperView Neo 3-01 satellite. This commercial Earth observation satellite was built by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). It will be operated by the China Siwei Survey and Mapping Technology Co. Ltd.

SuperView Neo 3-01’s imaging payload has a resolution of 0.5 meters over nine different wavelength bands, and a 130-km-wide imaging scope. Renders of the satellite show a single optical instrument protruding from the satellite, which also has one attached solar panel to power its systems.

The Chang Zheng 2D rocket has been China’s workhorse over the last few years and is one of the most-flown rockets in the world. It is part of the older generation of Chinese rockets, which still use hypergolic propellants.

(Lead image: Liftoff of the Chang Zheng 2D with Yaogan-42 01. Credit: CASC)

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