In addition to conventional expandable rockets, China’s future space launcher fleet will also include re-useable launch system, low-cost rapid-response launch vehicle, and super-heavy launch vehicle, according to a recently-published industrial development plan.
The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) recently revealed its roadmap for advancing the country’s industrial capabilities over the next five years (2016-2020), as part of the government’s “Made in China 2025” initiative aimed to upgrade industrial infrastructure and promote intelligence manufacturing. The roadmap outlined a number of key priorities for China’s civilian space programme by 2020, ranging from space launch systems, civilian space infrastructure, deep space exploration, space applications, to space-based information systems.
Under the Space Transportation System Programme (航天运输系统专项), the MIIT plan states:
Priorities will be given to new-generation launch systems including the CZ-5, CZ-8, low-cost rapid-response launch vehicle, reusable space-earth transportation system, as well as the heavy launch vehicle project.
When the Chinese space industry began to develop its new-generation launch vehicle family in the early 2000s, three models were originally planned. These eventually evolved into the heavy-load CZ-5, the medium-load CZ-7, and the small-load CZ-6. However, in 2015 a space official disclosed to the press that the concept of a fourth variant debuted CZ-8 was being evaluated. He revealed that the CZ-8 was primarily intended for Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) launch missions.
The CZ-8 was mentioned once again during a press conference held by the China National Space Agency (CNSA) in May this year, when the agency revealed that breakthrough in the new-generation kerosene and liquid-hydrogen rocket engine technologies would pave the way for the development of new-generation launch vehicles including CZ-6, CZ-7 and CZ-8. It is expected that the CZ-8 will make its debut flight by 2020. Once operational, it will replace the CZ-4B/C in current service.
As to the “low-cost rapid-response launch vehicle”, the plan document did not explain which specific model this was referring to, but both of China’s two aerospace corporations are currently promoting their small-load launch vehicles with varying degrees of rapid launch capability. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has test launched the liquid-fuelled CZ-6 and the solid-fuelled CZ-11. The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has made two successful flights with its solid-fuel, mobile-launched Kuaizhou (KZ). The improved KZ-1A is scheduled for its maiden launch in late 2016, and the larger KZ-11 and KZ-21 are also under development.
No doubt the most exciting revelation in the plan document is the “reusable space-earth transportation system”. Previously this only existed in research papers but the MIIT plan implies that the system is now in development. No detail on this system is available, but some sketchy information circulating on Chinese social media suggests that China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) of the CASC is currently developing a launch vehicle system with recoverable first-stage and boosters, similar to the concept of the SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1. However, launch vehicle with recoverable boosters won’t be the only option to achieve reusability, as CALT has also been studying various winged reusable systems (shuttle or spaceplane) since the late 1980s.
In 2006, CALT was reported to have been developing two reusable launch vehicle concepts. The first design, possibly a derivative of its Tiao Jiao 1 concept (Programme 863-204) of the 1980s, is said to be a small crewed shuttle system launched vertically atop the CZ-5 launch vehicle and landing horizontally through unpowered glide. The orbiter vehicle is about one sixth the size of the NASA Space Shuttle. The second design is a smaller unmanned, horizontal take-off and landing (HTHL) suborbital spaceplane that could launch a small second-stage rocket capable of placing 1,000 kg payload into orbit. In 2013, Chinese social media unveiled that CALT had conducted an automated high-speed approach and landing test for a “key aerospace system”.
In July this year, China’s state media reported that CALT was studying a revolutionary hybrid-power spacecraft vehicle, which will rely on turbine, ramjet and rocket engines to power the vehicle in different phases of the flight into orbit. It hopes that such technology will significantly reduce the cost for orbital travel.
Last but the not the least, the Chinese space industry is making breakthrough in high-thrust rocket engine technologies, which will eventually allow the development of a super-heavy launch vehicle designated CZ-9. Similar in size and capability to the NASA Space Launch System (SLS), the CZ-9 will be used to support China’s future deep space explorations including manned lunar landing and missions to Mars.