Thursday, May 3, 2018

China Develops Reusable Launch Vehicle

Presentation slide showing the design of Long March 8's reusable first stage and boosters. Image Credit: Sina Weibo/Spaceflightfans

Long March 8, one of China’s future launchers, could have a reusable first stage, according to a statement made recently by a Chinese rocket designer.

Although not much information has been so far disclosed by Beijing regarding its future launch vehicles, Western experts expected that Long March 8 is being designed as an expendable rocket for missions to Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). Initial project envisioned a two-stage launch vehicle with additional two or four solid rocket boosters. In such configuration, Long March 8 should be capable of lifting up to 4.5 metric tons to SSO.

However, more ambitious plans for this booster were presented by Long Lehao, chief designer of carrier rockets at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) on April 24 during a space conference held in Harbin, China. During his presentation, it was revealed that Chinese engineers are working on the reusability of Long March 8’s first stage and boosters.

According to Long, first stage and boosters of Long March 8 are expected to be retrieved through vertical landing. He added that if the project succeeds, the new partly reusable rocket would provide commercial launch services to customers around the globe.

"China's aerospace industry is making efforts to develop low-cost vehicles that can enter space rapidly to support future large-scale space exploration and promote a commercial space industry," Long was quoted by the state-run Xinhua press agency as saying.

Rocket reusability is also important for China due to safety reasons. The country conducts around 20 orbital launches annually and this year could be record-breaking as about 35 mission are in the launch manifest. Given that almost every Chinese rocket flies over mainland China, residents in possible drop zones of rocket stages have to be evacuated at every launch.

"As the current Long March 2, 3, 4 series rockets are fueled by toxic propellants, they cannot be recycled. But we are developing technologies to precisely control the fall of the rocket remains to ensure safety," Long noted.

Other Chinese rocket scientist speaking at the conference, Bao Weimin, director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, added that China will use reusable technology different from that employed by SpaceX for its Falcon 9 booster.

First launch of the Long March 8 rocket is currently targeted for around 2021. The reusability of the first stage of this booster is the first step of China’s long-term goal to launch fully reusable rockets on regular basis by 2035. Another important milestone towards achieving this goal will be the development of a reusable suborbital spacecraft by around 2025 and a rocket with two reusable stages by 2030.

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