Sunday, September 17, 2017

In the Footsteps of SpaceX: Chinese Company Eyes Development of a Reusable Launch Vehicle

New Line 1 rocket being presented to the public. Photo Credit: Link Space

One of Chinese startups appears to be following in the footsteps of SpaceX as it has lately laid out its own project of reusable space launch system. Link Space, the country’s first private rocket company, has recently presented the design of its New Line 1 (also known as Xin Gan Xian 1) launch vehicle, which could compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the future.

Link Space uncovered the design and some basic technical parameters at a recent presentation. The images revealed to the public show that the first stage of the newly developed launcher could feature similar landing system that is used in SpaceX’s flagship reusable Falcon 9 booster.

“SpaceX is very cool and Falcon 9 is extremely great, we take SpaceX as our goal and guider, because there are too many advantages for us to learn,” Hu Zhenyu, founder and CEO of Link Space Aerospace Technology Inc., told Astrowatch.net.

New Line 1 is a Small Launch Vehicle (SLV) designed for microsatellite and nanosatellite launches. It will be capable of sending up to about 440 lbs. (200 kilograms) into a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) of 155 to 342 miles (250 to 550 kilometers).

New Line 1 will be a 66-feet (20.1-meter) tall two-stage liquid rocket with a diameter of 5.9 feet (1.8 meters). With a mass of about 33 metric tons at liftoff, the launcher will have a takeoff thrust of about 400 kN. The first stage of the vehicle will consist of four liquid oxygen/kerosene engines with gas generator cycle. Each single booster will have a thrust of 100 kN.

The most important feature of the New Line 1 rocket will be obviously the reusability of its first stage, like in Falcon 9 boosters. This could greatly lower the cost of one single orbital launch.

“The launch price is about 30 million yuan ($4.5 million) for each launch (with a totally new rocket), and this rocket will have an enhanced version with increased takeoff weight. By reusing the first stage of the rocket, the launch price will be reduced to about 15 million yuan ($2.25 million),” Hu revealed.

While the New Line 1 rocket will have only one reusable stage, the company thinks big and aims to develop also a second stage that could be reused after landing. Although it is a long-term goal, Hu hopes that it could implemented in the successors of the company’s first launch vehicle.

“Perhaps the later version, such as New Line 2 or 3, will have such a capacity,” Hu said.

Founded in 2014, Link Space is a Beijing-based startup with no government or military background. In July 2016, the company achieved rocket hover flight with a single vector-thrust-engine for the first time in China. The firm is currently developing key technology for space industry, including variable thrust liquid rocket engine, vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) rocket flight platform, flight control algorithm and control system, hover flight test process, servo actuator and many others.

Until September 2017, Link Space have developed three hover rockets, repeated flight test more than 200 times, accumulated a lot of experimental data and engineering experience. The company utilizes rocket flight test field which is located in Shandong Province covering 53,800 square feet (5,000 square meters) - the biggest commercial rocket test field in China for large thrust liquid engine and rocket flight test.

According to Hu, the development of the New Line 1 launch vehicle will consume about 300 million yuan ($45 million) and the maiden flight of the rocket could be conducted as soon as 2020.

“The first orbital flight of New Line 1 is planned in 2020, which is an optimistic estimation because we know it's hard, and we plan to develop most of the core technology all by ourselves, such as deep-variable-thrust liquid rocket engine, flight control system, landing systems and so on,” Hu noted.

Link Space hopes that the New Line 1 rocket will attract the interest of commercial companies worldwide. The company also believes that the launch vehicle will also carry out some missions for the Chinese government.

So far, SpaceX is the only company to recover a rocket following an orbital launch. Few months ago, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, encouraged other companies to develop their own reusable orbital rockets. Now, Link Space’s bold plans show that it could be only a matter of few years when SpaceX’s monopoly in this field could be broken up.

“We also believe that a good technical trend should not belong to a single company, and Elon has said that the reusable rocket is certain to be more and more common. In fact, a lot of similar programs are very different in detail. Although it looks similar in appearance, if you want to make it really work, you must do everything from zero to design and manufacture the whole rocket,” Hu concluded.

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