China a step closer to acquiring RD-180

Just while U.S. politicians are pressing for an end to the use of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines on American launch vehicles, China is getting a step closer to acquiring the same engine for its own space programme.

According to a report by the Russian news agency TASS on 20 June, Russia and China are about to enter an agreement on protection of intellectual property on rocket and space technology during the upcoming visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to China in late June. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told reporters that the agreement will pave way for two contracts to be concluded – China buying the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, and Russia purchasing Chinese-made micro electronics components for its spacecraft.

It was first reported in July 2015 that China is interested in buying Russia’s RD-180 dual-combustion chamber 400 t-thrust engines for its future super-heavy-lift launch vehicle, as a source familiar with the situation told Interfax-AVN, possibly referring to the proposed Chang Zheng-9 (CZ-9, Long March 9). The CZ-9 rocket, which is still in its pre-research stage, will be comparable in size and performance to the U.S. Space Launch System (SLS), capable of delivering up to 140,000 kg payload to LEO and up to 50,000 kg payload to Lunar Transit Orbit.

However, the RD-180 is only one of the options being considered for the CZ-9’s propulsion. According to China Daily, Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology (AAPT) of the China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation (CASC) consortium is currently developing a 500 t-thrust LOX/Kerosene engine and a 200 t-thrust LOX/LH2 engine that will be used on the future super heavy-lift rocket. It is likely that the RD-180 acquisition will be running in parallel with the indigenous development project, in case one of them fall through.

NPO Energomash of Russia has been supplying ready-to-use RD-180 liquid rocket engine to power United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s Atlas III/V launch vehicles since 2000, and possibly wishes to follow the same model in selling the engine to the Chinese customer. However, China will most likely be interested in entering a licensed co-production, or purchasing a small number of examples for study and even reverse-engineering – a common practice in China’s acquisition of Russian aerospace and defence equipment in the past. This is why an agreement on protection of intellectual property is a critical step before any order can be agreed.

The most capable rocket engine developed by China is the YF-100, which is being used on all three series of the country’s new generation launch vehicles: the CZ-5, CZ-6 and CZ-7. Like the RD-180, the YF-100 is also a stage combustion cycle engine burning the LOX/Kerosene bi-propellant. However, the engine can only produce a maximum thrust of 122 t. The YF-100 has been developed from the technology of the Russian RD-120 engine, examples of which was obtained by China in the 1990s. Development of the YF-100 began in the early 2000s and It took the Chinese space industry over a decade to fully digest the RD-120 technology.

YF-100 test firing

YF-100 in ground test firing

Nevertheless, China’s attempt to obtain more powerful rocket engines and develop a super heavy-lift launch vehicle is a reflection of growing ambition in expanding its space programme, which already includes robotic lunar landing and sample return missions by 2018, the construction of a permanent space station in LEO by 2022, and a Mars probe mission around 2021. Once the CZ-9 rocket becomes available, currently speculated to be around 2025, China will possess a launch capability enough to support a manned lunar landing mission, as well as other missions beyond Earth orbit.

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