Throughout the last few weeks, several events in Chinese spaceflight have created international headlines. After launching a Chang Zheng 2C rocket that would later fall onto an inhabited village, a Tianlong-3 rocket was unexpectedly released during a static fire test and would crash in an area close to the launch site.

However, not all of the attention and headlines China’s spaceflight program has garnered in the last few weeks have been negative. Recently, new developments regarding the design and testing of China’s upcoming next-generation rockets were reported.

Tianlong-3 static fire test mishap 

During a static fire engine test last week, Space Pioneer’s Tianlong-3 rocket was released from the test stand while firing and flew into the air. The test took place at the Gongyi Engine Test Facility. The initial test was expected to be a 30-second static fire.

The Tianlong-3 is a rocket very similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Its nine THQ-12 engines on the first stage produce a combined thrust of up to 7.6 meganewtons. With the static fire test, the company expected to validate the rocket ahead of its maiden launch in just a few months.

Wow. This is apparently what was supposed to be a STATIC FIRE TEST today of a Tianlong-3 first stage by China’s Space Pioneer. That’s catastrophic, not static. Firm was targeting an orbital launch in the coming months. https://t.co/BY9MgJeE7A pic.twitter.com/L6ronwLW1N

— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) June 30, 2024

Videos close to the test site show that shortly after ignition, the rocket can be seen flying out of the exhaust plume created during the static fire with its engines still firing. Missing a second stage, the first stage rose high before starting to flip rapidly, which then resulted in the rocket’s engines shutting off and the rocket subsequently falling back to Earth.

At the moment the rocket impacted the ground, a massive explosion occurred. According to officials, nobody was hurt during the test. The rocket fell 1.5 kilometers downrange from the test site, a fortunate landing location given that a village was less than one kilometer away.

Tianlong-3 first stage on the test stand. (Credit: Space Pioneer)

The stand used for this test was patented during the development of Space Pioneer’s former Tianlong-2 rocket. In the patent, the company states that the stand is rated for up to 600 tons of thrust. With the rocket capable of producing up to 820 tons of thrust, according to Space Pioneer, early indications suggest that the stand’s design limit was exceeded, resulting in the rocket releasing itself from the test stand.

This rocket was initially scheduled to launch in September 2024 from the Wenchang Commercial Launch Pad. However, with the anomaly during the static fire test, the first launch of the Tianlong-3 will almost certainly be delayed past this date, and the future of Space Pioneer remains uncertain.

The company said, “We have pre-set engines to shut down, and we actively commanded them to let the stage fall back. We have different contingency plans in place.” It is unclear if the company was truly in control of the vehicle during the anomaly.

Tianlong-3 is 71 m tall and has a diameter of 3.8 m. Its similarity to Falcon 9 has sparked criticism from the space industry in the past. Like the Falcon 9, the rocket is designed to perform a vertical takeoff and landing.

Chang’e 6 returns surface sample from the Moon

The sixth Chinese robotic exploration mission to the Moon, Chang’e 6, ended in a massive success for the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The mission’s goal was to retrieve the first samples from the far side of the Moon in the history of spaceflight.

The mission was launched on May 3 using a Chang Zheng 5 rocket from the Wenchang Launch Site. The mass of the entire Chang’e 6 spacecraft at launch was 8.3 tonnes. 

Chang’e 6 on the surface of the Moon. (Credit: CNSA)

The mission’s architecture consisted of four components: a lander that landed on the Moon, an ascent vehicle integrated into the lander that would ascend from the lunar surface back to lunar orbit, an orbiter that served as the main orbital platform during the mission, and a return stage, which reentered Earth’s atmosphere and successfully returned the surface sample to Earth’s surface.

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The return stage successfully reentered on June 25 and touched down in Mongolia, where it was retrieved by Chinese officials. In total, the Chang’e 6 successfully returned 1,935.3 grams of lunar regolith to Earth. This marks an increase from the previous Chang’e 5 mission, which returned 1,731 grams.

SAST completes 12 km takeoff and landing test

The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) has successfully completed a hop of its vertical takeoff-vertical landing vehicle. The vehicle reached an altitude of 12 km during the test, the highest altitude achieved by any Chinese hopper to date.

The prototype is 3.8 m wide and powered by three Methalox engines. The next test for the hopper vehicle is planned to reach an altitude of 70 kilometers, simulating the full flight profile of the first stage. The engines are currently installed in a line on the prototype vehicle, however, for future iterations, two or three more engines will be added on each side to complete the engine grid.

SAST has previously designed several Chinese launch vehicles, including the Chang Zheng 2/4 and Chang Zheng 6 families. While information about this hopper and the upcoming rocket is limited, it appears to be part of a development program aimed at creating reusable rockets at SAST.

SAST proposes another roadmap of developing a Starship-like super heavy-lift launch vehicle, published in a recent paper.
1⃣D3.35m, 5x70t + 1x70t, 2.5t SSO
2⃣D4.0m, 7 or 9x80t + 1x80t, 3.5t~6.5t SSO
3⃣D7.0m, 19~22x80t + 2x80t, 20t SSO
4⃣D10m, 25~28tx200t + 6~9x200t, 100t LEO https://t.co/HHLrDRNJPB pic.twitter.com/BW7J0Zszpa

— China ‘N Asia Spaceflight 𝕏 (@CNSpaceflight) September 15, 2022

This hopper is likely a prototype of the four-meter rocket announced in 2022. It remains unclear if the diameter of the rocket has changed to 3.8 meters, as SAST has not provided updates. The long-term plan involves developing even larger rockets on this platform.

The four-meter rocket is projected to feature seven or nine of these Methalox engines and will be capable of carrying up to 6.5 tons into a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). The seven-meter diameter rocket is planned to incorporate up to 22 of these 80-ton engines, increasing the payload capacity to 20 tons to SSO. Finally, the 10-meter diameter rocket aims to achieve a payload capacity of 100 tons.

Static fire of Chang Zheng 10 rocket

China has successfully conducted a static fire test of three engines integrated into the core stage of its upcoming Moon rocket, the Chang Zheng 10. During the test, which occurred on June 14, three YF-100K engines were tested together in an integrated configuration. According to officials, the test proceeded normally with the successful startup, burn, and shutdown of all three engines.

the first static fire test of China’s moon rocket Long March 10 https://t.co/qTU9nmnNbo pic.twitter.com/rki4io5wYU

— China ‘N Asia Spaceflight 𝕏 (@CNSpaceflight) June 14, 2024

The Chang Zheng 10 is pivotal to China’s plans for human exploration on the Moon. The rocket is designed to consist of three massive cores, each equipped with seven YF-100K engines. This recent test focused on validating all necessary components and subsystems rather than demonstrating the entire rocket structure at once. Meanwhile, construction of the infrastructure for the Chang Zheng 10, aimed at facilitating a Moon landing with Chinese astronauts as early as 2030, is also underway.

Chang Zheng 2C stage lands close to Chinese village

On June 22 at 8:00 UTC, a Chang Zheng 2C rocket lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China, carrying a Chinese-French cooperation project. The Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) was developed jointly by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES). The rocket’s upper stage inserted it into a low-Earth orbit. The 930 kg X-ray telescope will study the explosions of massive and super-massive stars by analyzing gamma bursts emitted from these events.

Behind the scenes of SVOM launch https://t.co/Fcc0OAY3ac pic.twitter.com/5fiM4oz2GY

— China ‘N Asia Spaceflight 𝕏 (@CNSpaceflight) June 22, 2024

During the launch, the Chang Zheng 2C booster crashed into a village along its downrange path. This is particularly concerning as the rocket uses hypergolic propellants, known for their potential hazards. The descent and impact of the booster were well documented in videos by those who reside in and around the village. The videos have since been used in headlines worldwide. 

Chang Zheng 7A launches ChinaSat 3A

On June 29 at 12:57 UTC, a Chinese Chang Zheng 7A rocket was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Site, using Launch Pad 201.

The payload for this mission was ChinaSat 3A, destined for a geostationary transfer orbit. ChinaSat is a brand name for Chinese satellites operated by Chinese Satellite Communications. The specific purpose of this communication satellite remains undisclosed.

(Lead image: Chang Zheng 7A lifts off. Credit: CASC)

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