China is working on new vehicles for a variety of human spaceflight missions, including a new methane-fueled rocket that seems to be inspired by SpaceX.
The country is developing a new generation reusable launch vehicle for missions to LEO and beyond, based on developed technologies, as well as a winged space transportation system and a fully reusable and low-cost two-stage methane-liquid oxygen launcher, reportedly based on SpaceX’s Starship system concept.
The latter, in particular, looks to represent a new route for China. The first stage would land vertically, while the second stage would use wings for initial declaration before descending and landing vertically.
Wang Xiaojun, president of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), a major state-owned rocket manufacturer, revealed the notion during a keynote lecture.
“We are working on a human launch vehicle fuelled by LOX-methane propellant,” Wang stated via a translator on Feb. 17 at the International Symposium on Outlook and Cooperation on Near-Earth Orbit Human Space Flight. The International Astronautical Federation (IAF), the Chinese Society of Astronautics (CSA), and CALT collaborated to put on the event.
While the Starship and Super Heavy are expected to be able to deliver more than 100 metric tonnes to LEO, Wang estimates that CALT’s methalox system will be able to launch roughly 20 tonnes to LEO.
The relevant graphic looks to show a gas generator engine, but Starship’s Raptor engines are more sophisticated but more powerful.
While the images resemble systems under development in the United States, the work on the launcher is still in the early stages of development and is unlikely to represent a finished idea or authorized project. There was no indication of when the initial rollout might happen.
Wang discussed the system’s potential for LEO transportation, reusability, and point-to-point transportation. Another CALT presentation from last year had a Starship-like design.
In the last decade, CASC is said to have built methane-liquid oxygen engines. Landspace, a private company, is ready to launch its methane-fueled Zhuque-2 launch vehicle for the first time in the near future.
Following the development of reusable rockets, China’s space transportation goals have changed dramatically in recent years. In view of recent fast advancements in spaceflight technology, Wang said that governments are scrambling to update rockets with high success rates, improved efficiency and launch rates, and lower unit prices.
He also noted that major spacefaring countries are working on plans for human travel to the moon and Mars, with the aim of using space resources and establishing long-term stays outside the planet.
Wang also gave an update on CALT’s development of a next-generation launch vehicle for human spaceflight in recent years. The rocket builds on advancements achieved with the Long March 5, the country’s biggest launcher at the moment.
The new launcher will be available in two versions: a two-stage single-core version for LEO missions and a three-stage triple-core version for missions beyond LEO. China was formerly thought to be considering human-rated Long March 7 and Long March 5B rockets for these missions.
In reusable mode, the two-stage version of the new-gen rocket will be able to deliver roughly 14 tonnes to LEO, or 18 tonnes in expendable form. CALT intends to use a tether method to retrieve the early stages.
In the next five years, a variant of the rocket is scheduled to fly for the first time, capable of lifting a new-generation crew spacecraft to the Chinese space station—a largely reusable replacement to the Shenzhou.
According to previous reports, a pair of launches of the bigger model might be employed for a short-duration crewed lunar landing mission.
Parallel suborbital and smaller orbital spaceplanes were utilized to make repeating flights to the Chinese space station, according to a graphic depicting a winged space transportation system. Both would be able to land horizontally after a vertical launch.
In September 2020 and July 2021, CASC performed covert orbital and suborbital reusable spacecraft experiments. It is unclear if these testing are linked to the proposed proposals.
Wang remarked that methalox rockets, novel materials, combined cycle engines for single-stage-to-orbit systems, artificial intelligence, and nuclear thermal propulsion have the potential to significantly improve spaceflight capabilities.