Wenchang Space Launch Centre
After decades of planning and seven years of construction, China’s newest spaceport, the Wenchang Space Launch Centre (WSLC), witnessed its inaugural launch mission on 25 June 2016, with the successful launch of a CZ-7 rocket from Launch Complex 201. With two brand new launch complexes and support facilities, Wenchang will become China’s portal to space in the 21st century, supporting the country’s ambitious space projects including a permanent space station and deep space missions to the Moon and Mars. The space centre will also gradually replace the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in supporting geostationary launch missions for commercial commercial telecommunications satellites. The total cost of the construction project was estimated to be RMB 5 billion (US$730 million).
The WSLC is configured to support the launch missions of China’s new-generation launch vehicles including the heavy-load CZ-5 and the medium-load CZ-7, both burning cleaner LOX/ Kerosene and LOX/LH2 propellants. The launch centre is situated on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province and largest island, which offers a number of unique advantages as a location for a spaceport:
- The proximity to the equator (19° N) gives the launch vehicle a performance boost gained from the Earth’s rotational speed. This effective reduces the amount of propellants required for the satellite’s manoeuvre from the transit orbit to GEO, thus increasing its service life by up to three years.
- The coastal location of the launch complex allows much larger rocket booster segments to be transported from their manufactories in Tianjin by sea. In contrast, all three existing launch centres in China can only receive rocket boosters by railway, which limits the size of the rocket to 3.35 m in diameter.
- The launch vehicle can fly from the launch site to the southeast direction into the South Pacific, avoiding the possibility of rocket debris falling into any populated area.
Hainan Island is off the southern coast of China, separated from the Chinese mainland in the north by the Qiongzhou Strait, and Vietnam in the west by the Gulf of Tongking. The City of Wenchang is located in the northeast corner of the island, covering a region of 2,403 square kilometres with 207 km coastline. The space centre is situated inside the jurisdiction of Longlou Town, about 20 km northeast of Wenchang city centre, where the Launch Control Centre is located. Two tracking stations are situated in Tongguling, Wenchang and the Xisha Islands. The space centre’s administrative headquarters and main living area are situated in Haikou, the capital city of Hainan Island.
Rocket booster and large spacecraft components are transported from their manufacturing facilities in the northern coastal city of Tianjin by two specially-designed 9,000 t displacement cargo ships (Yuanwang 21 and 22) to the nearby Qinglan Seaport, and then by overland road to the launch site.
Chinese rocket scientists have long envisaged launching spacecraft from a location near the Equator in order to take advantage of Earth rotational speed gain. The idea of building a satellite launch site on Hainan Island was first raised in the 1970s. However, it was deemed too risky to place such a valuable asset on the island in the South China Sea, where both the United States and the Soviet Union had strong military presence during the Cold War era.
With the end of Cold War and the improving relations with the neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, the idea of a launch site on Hainan Island resurfaced and was widely discussed within the academia circle. This led to the construction of a sounding rocket launch facility in the northwest part of the island, with five successful suborbital launches conducted since 1988. Preliminary studies on the feasibility of a satellite launch site on the island were initiated in 1994, with the findings submitted to the State Council in 1996.
The local government of Hainan Province began to actively lobby for a satellite launch site on the island in the late 1990s, in a hope that it would boost local economy and tourism. The space industry was also very much in favour of a new launch site with better conditions and greater connection to industrial and population centres, to replace the existing Xichang Satellite Launch Centre (XSLC), built during the Cold War era in the deep mountains of Sichuan Province.
A number of locations on the island were considered, with Wenchang, a small town located in the southeast corner of the island, regarded the most suitable site. Feasibility studies and conceptual design of the new launch centre were completed in 2005. The State Council and the Central Military Commission (CMC) finally gave go-ahead to the construction of the launch site in August 2007. A formal groundbreaking ceremony for the launch centre took place on 14 September 2009.
By 2014 construction of the two launch pads, two vehicle assembly buildings, and other launch support facilities were all near completion. A CZ-7 ground test vehicle was delivered to the launch centre by two seagoing cargo ships in December 2014 for a simulated launch campaign walkthrough. This was followed by a simulated CZ-5 launch campaign in September 2015.
CZ-5 Launch Complex
The launch complex to support the heavy-load CZ-5 launch vehicle consists of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) codenamed “501” and the launch pad codenamed “101”. The VAB is a 15-storey (14 above ground and 1 underground), 99.4 m-high building designed to assemble the launch vehicle and its payload.
The assembled launch vehicle and spacecraft stack is rolled out to the launch pad in a vertical position atop a Mobile Launcher Platform (MLP), which also has 6 swing arms to provide electrical, hydraulic, environmental control, and other support functions to the vehicle through umbilical lines. The mobile launch platforms move on a 20 m-wide, 2,800 m long rail track between the VAB and launch pad, and it takes about 3 hours for the platform to move from one end to the other.
Pad 101 consists of a fixed umbilical tower, underground flame deflector trenches and ducts, and four lightning rods. The umbilical tower is steel and reinforced concrete structure, with swing arms and rotating platforms to allow technicians to access and inspect the launch vehicle stack. It is also the first Chinese launch pad to feature a Sound Suppression System, which sprays large volumes of water over the launcher platform and into the flame deflector trenches below it to dampen sound waves generated by the rocket engines, and also discouraged fires that might be caused by the rocket exhaust.
CZ-7 Launch Complex
The launch complex to support the medium-load CZ-7 launch vehicle consists of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) codenamed “502” and the launch pad codenamed “201”. They are generally similar to those of the CZ-5 launch complex, except marginally lower in height: the VAB is 96.6 m in height, and the umbilical tower is 85.8 m in height. The CZ-7 MLP shares the same rail track with the CZ-5 MLP for most part of its rollout journey, which means that the CZ-7 MLP needs to make four 60° turns before reaching the pad.
CZ-9 Launch Complex
In the second phase of the launch centre construction project, a new larger launch complex will be built to support the super heavy-load CZ-9 launch vehicle.
The two VABs are connected by a common Launch Vehicle Horizontal Checkout Building, where the launch vehicle segments are initially received and prepared before being assembled inside the VAB. Nearby locates the spacecraft checkout building, spacecraft fuelling workshop, launch control console, and 110 kV electrical substation.