The year 2021 has been a historic one for China’s space program. The country achieved a successful landing on Mars, started on-orbit assembly of the modular Chinese Space Station, and has a wide range of orbital-class launch vehicles entering service and under development.

Looking back at the launch statistics of 2021, China managed an average cadence of launching more than once a week for the first time in its orbital spaceflight history. 55 orbital launches have taken place – with most of these using rockets of either the legacy Chang Zheng 2, 3, and 4 family, or the next-generation Chang Zheng 5, 6, 7, and 8 series entering service to replace them. Other launches have come from the private company Galactic Energy with their Ceres-1 rocket, i-space with their Hyperbola-1, and the government-subsidized ExPace with their Kuaizhou vehicles.

With more new rockets scheduled to enter service in 2022, and others under long-term development and not expected to fly until the late 2020s, we recap the last year and look ahead to what is planned for 2022 and beyond in the Chinese space program.

Mission to Mars

One of the biggest milestones for Chinese spaceflight in 2021 was the country’s first soft touchdown on Mars. Having launched in 2020, the Tianwen-1 mission arrived in orbit of Mars in February 2021 although it would not drop down to the red planet right away. Instead, it spent three months in orbit searching for the right landing site and conditions, in contrast to the US Perseverance rover, which landed directly on the surface.

Artist’s impression of Tianwen-1 and Zhurong  — via Nature Astronomy, CNSA

The goals of the mission, which includes an orbiter, the lander, and a rover named Zhurong, are to conduct a survey of Martian geology and the structure of the planet, to search for water, and to study the atmosphere and climate of the planet. Like the US Perseverance mission, it also was designed to take audio recordings on the surface and broadcast them back to Earth.

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The Tianwen lander and its Zhurong rover touched down on May 14, leaving the orbiter in space. The landing made China the third nation to achieve a soft landing on Mars, after the United States and the Soviet Union, with the European Space Agency having also achieved a soft landing in 2003, although their Beagle 2 probe failed to deploy or communicate back to Earth.

Zhurong joined the Perseverance rover, which also arrived at Mars this year, as a robotic asset of humans on the red planet. There are currently three rovers active on Mars, with NASA’s older Curiosity rover also still in operation.

A New Space Station

Meanwhile, in Earth orbit, China has begun the assembly of its next-generation space station. The Chinese Space Station, also known as Tiangong – not to be confused with the earlier Tiangong-1 and 2 stations – will consist of several modules launched separately and docked in space to create a larger complex. The station is designed to be used and operated for at least ten to fifteen years, 10-15 years, with additional modules upgrading the capabilities of the station and providing more space for scientific instruments.

Tianhe, the first module of China’s new space station, lifts off aboard a Chang Zheng 5B — via Xinhua

The first module, Tianhe – meaning Harmony of the Heavens – was launched on April 29 aboard a Chang Zheng 5B rocket. It is currently in a 389-by-395-kilometer orbit around the Earth with the three crew members of the Shenzhou 13 mission aboard.

Overall China conducted two crewed launches in 2021. The first one was Shenzhou 12, launched in June with Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng, and Liu Boming aboard to undertake initial commissioning of the Tianhe module. After their return to Earth, a second crew – consisting of Ye Guangfu, Zhai Zhigagn, and Wang Yaping – launched aboard Shenzhou 13 in September for the first long-duration stay aboard the station.

The Shenzhou 12 mission included two spacewalks to help with the assembly of the station. The Shenzhou 13 crew have also made two spacewalks to date, including the first to be made by a Chinese woman. Wang Yaping, together with Zhai Zhigang, conducted a spacewalk on November 7 which successfully installed new hardware on the outside of the station. The most recent spacewalk was made by Ye Guangfu and Zhai Zhigang on December 26, in which they installed new parts to the space station, including a new external camera.

Earth as seen from the Chinese Space Station, photographed by the crew of Shenzhou-12. (Credit: CMSA)

In 2022, China is expected to launch two more crew rotations to the Tiangong station using its Shenzhou spacecraft. The first, Shenzhou 14, is expected in May, while the second one will launch in November. Both missions will launch aboard Chang Zheng 2F/G rockets. Two more modules for the space station are also planned to launch in the course of the year.

These new modules are the laboratory cabin modules (LCMs). The first is named Wentian, meaning Quest for the Heavens, while the second is Mengtian, or Dreaming of the Heavens. Both will launch on Chang Zheng 5B rockets, with Wentian currently scheduled to lift off in May or June, with Mengtian planned to launch in August or September.

Both modules measure 17.9 meters in length, with a diameter of 4.2 meters. As well as providing more space both inside and outside the station, they will help with propulsion and orientation of the complex as well as housing additional solar arrays and communications equipment. Each module will initially dock to the station’s forward axial port, before being moved to their permanent berths at the port and starboard radial ports of Tianhe’s forward node.

To support the space station, two more Tianzhou cargo missions are also expected in 2022: with the Tianzhou 4 and 5 spacecraft expected to launch on Chang Zheng 7 rockets. Tianzhou 4 is expected to launch in March or April, while Tianzhou 5 will fly later in the year.

New Rockets

While China’s launch schedule is not always clear – particularly when it comes to new vehicles – several new members of the next-generation Chang Zheng family are expected to make their debut in 2022, starting very early in the year with a new medium-lift rocket, Chang Zheng 6A (CZ-6A). Heavy members of the family are also under development, however these are not expected to launch in the next few years.

A Chang Zheng 6 rocket. The CZ-6A will use a stretched first stage with two engines, solid rocket boosters and a wider upper stage and fairing to increase its payload capacity.

The debut flight of the Chang Zheng 6A was originally expected in 2021 but appears to have slipped into the next year. Compared to the Chang Zheng 6, which is already flying, the CZ-6A will be a much longer and more capable vehicle.

While the CZ-6 is 30 meters long, the CZ-6A measures about 50 meters in length. Its first stage consists of a liquid-fueled core burning RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen, with four solid-fuel side boosters. This will make it the first Chinese rocket to use solid boosters with a liquid-fueled core, in contrast to the liquid-fueled boosters used on earlier rockets like the Chang Zheng 2F and 3B.

The CZ-6A’s core stage will be powered by two 1,200-kilonewton engines, most likely the YF-100 which are also used on the Chang Zheng 6, 7 and 8 rockets as well as the boosters of the larger Chang Zheng 5. It will mainly be used for missions to low Earth orbit – particularly sun-synchronous orbits – and is expected to launch initially from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center.

Another existing rocket that will get a new version in either 2022 or 2023 is the smaller, solid-fueled, Chang Zheng 11 (CZ-11). The new CZ-11A version will feature a first stage with an increased diameter of 2.65 meters, up from 2 meters. This will provide 2,000 kN of thrust at liftoff, and incorporates composite materials to reduce weight compared to steel structures used on the current version.

Chang Zheng 11 lifts off from its floating launch platform – the wider CZ-11A will also be capable of launching at sea

CZ-11A will also feature a new payload fairing with an increased diameter of 3.35 meters, making it more flexible to carry different kinds of payloads. The rocket is expected to be able to lift a 1,500-kilogram payload into sun-synchronous orbit or 2,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit. Like the CZ-11 it will be able to launch either from land or from the sea. The existing CZ-11 has so far launched two times from a sea platform, with another sea launch expected very soon, in addition to nine missions from land at the Jiuquan and Xichang Satellite Launch Centers.

In more long-term plans, China is also continuing with the development of its Chang Zheng 9 rocket, which is planned to have a payload capacity of up to 150,000 kg to low Earth orbit: in the same ballpark as SpaceX’s Starship and NASA’s Space Launch System.

The current design calls for a diameter of 10.6 meters and a length of 108 meters, with a first stage powered by 16 YF-135 engines burning RP-1 and liquid oxygen. This would be used in conjunction with a liquid-hydrogen-powered upper stage. Construction has not yet begun, with the project still in the design phase and the first flight not expected for several years.

More variants of the CZ-9 were planned during the initial announcement, but after the most recent redesign in June 2021, it is not clear if the CZ-9A and 9B versions, with planned payloads of up to 100,000 kg and 50,000 kg to low Earth orbit are still planned.

China’s new rockets will surpass the Chang Zheng 5, currently the country’s most powerful rocket — via Su Dong

China is also continuing design work on the Chang Zheng 5 Dengyue rocket, a modified version of the Chang Zheng 5 that is planned to be used for crewed lunar missions, with a target of sending a 25,000-kilogram payload to the moon. The rocket is expected to debut no earlier than 2026, with the current design consisting of three cores with seven YF-100K engines on each core, although the final configuration is subject to change.

With the introduction of the Chang Zheng 6A and further missions for the Chang Zheng 5, 6, 7 and 8 vehicles, 2022 will likely see the continuation of China’s transition away from the older Chang Zheng 2, 3 and 4 rockets and their toxic hypergolic propellants. As more of the new RP-1 and hydrogen-fueled rockets become operational and prove themselves, it is likely that the older rockets will begin to wind down their operations. A key thing to watch for in the new year will be whether this transition becomes more visible, with the next-generation rockets taking on missions that were previously fulfilled by the older vehicles.

The last few years have also seen an increasing number of new Chinese-based companies testing and operating their own small rockets. This trend is expected to continue into 2022 as the rockets that have already flown look to build a portfolio of successful missions and new rockets continue to come online.

The Shian Quxian (Hyperbola) family of rockets — via i-Space

One such company, i-Space, is also planning to conduct the first launch of its Shian Quxian 2 (SQX-2, also known as Hyperbola-2) rocket in 2022. This is planned to incorporate first stage reusability, and will have a payload capacity of up to 1,900 kilograms into LEO. The  JD-1 engine that powers its first stage burns liquid methane and liquid oxygen (methalox). When the JD-1’s first test-firing took place in 2020 the first launch of Shian Quxian 2 was slated for 2022, however i-Space have not given any recent updates on the rocket’s development so it is unclear whether this date still holds.

Over the long term, i-Space also plans to use this as a stepping stone to another rocket, Shian Quxian 3. This will incorporate a first stage that can perform a vertical landing and can fly with one or two side boosters to increase its low Earth orbit payload to 14,100 kg – or 32,200 kg if the first stage is expended. Shian Quxian 3 is similar in design and capabilities to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, and is not expected to launch before 2024.

Another company, LandSpace, is also planning to launch a new rocket in 2022. Their Zhuque-2 (ZQ-2) rocket has a payload capability of 4,000 kg to low Earth orbit. Like i-Space’s JD-1, its TQ-12 engines use methalox propellant. LandSpace has opened a new factory which will be able to output 15 ZQ-2 rockets per year once the rocket is operational.

While its target launch count for 2022 is not yet known, it can be expected that China will continue to launch at a similar or higher rate than in the last year. The country now has its eye fixed on the Moon and Mars, and while the first human landings may still be years away, China is trying to advance its space program as quickly as possible.

(Lead photo: A Shenzhou spacecraft approaches the Chinese Space Station. Credit: Mack Crawford for NSF/L2)

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