Long Chinese March to Space Industry Leadership

In September Chinese debuted with two small-class launchers – ‘eco-friendly’ Long March 6 and solid propellant Long March 11 – opening new chapter in the national history of rocket technology exploration.

On September 19 (UTC), 2015, there was conducted successful launch of Long March 6 launch vehicle carrying 20 small satellites from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center (TSLC). These satellites will primarily conduct orbital technology demonstrations, including tests of electric propulsion, in-space communications links, new software and cameras, nanotechnology, and amateur radio relay.

The first completely new Chinese launcher introduced in nearly two decades, Long March 6 is a small-class rocket capable of delivering up to 1,500 kg of payload into a low Earth orbit, or up to 1,000 kg into a sun-synchronous orbit, which is the same class with European Vega and Russian Angara-1 launchers.

China began development of the new-generation Long March launchers in early 2000s, SinoDefence informs. Their most significant improvement over the current Long March rockets was to abandon toxic N2O4/UDMH propellant components in favor of eco-friendlier liquid oxygen (LOX) + kerosene and LOX + liquid hydrogen (LH2) propellants.

“Loading, testing & positioning were finished when Long March 6 was at a horizontal position, before it was lifted to an upright position for launch… We believe it will boost competitiveness of Chinese rockets at the international market... The new model will also significantly improve our ability to access space.” Zhang Weidong, Designer-in-Chief at the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology

The new-generation rocket family will also include medium-class Long March 7 and heavy Long March 5 launchers, which are due to make their maiden flights in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Together they will gradually replace the entire current Long March launchers, including Long March 2, 3 and 4 series over the next decade.

Notably, China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) of China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation (CASC) was originally leading the development of all new-generation Long March rockets, but development of Long March 6 was reassigned to Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST).

Chinese Long March launch vehicles - LM-7, LM-3B, LM-4B & LM-2D from left to right, respectively - shown at the Paris Air Show 2015. Credit: SpaceDigest
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Original concept of new-generation Chinese launchers is somewhat similar to Russian modular approach in development of Angara rockets. New 'Long Marches' are designed to be assembled from three baseline rocket modules of 2.25 m, 3.35 m and 5.00 m diameter. These modules can be powered by either 120 ton thrust LOX/kerosene YF-100 rocket engines or 50 ton thrust LOX/LH2 YF-77 engines.

Long March 6 is based on 3.35 m diameter core stage powered by YF-100 engine. Under the modular principle, this module could also serve as a strap-on booster for medium and heavy launchers. The smallest launcher of the family also consists of 2.25 m second stage, powered by LOX/kerosene YF-115 engine, and the same diameter upper stage, powered by four LOX/LH2 YF-85 engines derived from Long March 3's third stage.

The launcher could be fitted with two types of payload fairing, either 2.25 m or 2.60 m diameter. Due to relatively small size and weight, the rocket could be assembled at the rocket plant and then transported in one-piece on a wheeled transporter vehicle to the launch pad. The entire Long March 6 launch campaign takes only 7 days, in contrast to 30-40 days required by conventional Long March launchers.

Liquid oxygen-hydrogen YX-77 rocket engine model. Credit: Weibo.com
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In 5 days after Long March 6 debut, on September 25, 2015, Chinese conducted successful launch of Long March 11 solid-propellant launch vehicle carrying four small satellites, all of technology-proof nature, from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the northwestern province of Gansu. The new rocket was developed by CALT.

According to Xinhua News, successful launch of Long March 11 marked major Chinese breakthrough in capturing key technologies of solid propellant rockets. Similarly to Long March 6, its solid-propellant 'brother' also represents a small-class launcher.

Notably, one of satellites launched aboard Long March 11 – Pujiang-1 – became the first Chinese satellite to adopt 3D-printing technology. Developed by SAST, satellite's titanium antenna holder was produced by 3D-printers in just three days, reports WantChinaTimes.

Other three CubeSats, in a mission coded STU-2, are expected to help track civil aircraft and ships and avoid tragedies like missing flight MH370. They are equipped with polar region observation cameras as well as automatic identification system (AIS) receivers for information from ships and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) receivers for messages sent from civil flights, reports Xinhua News.

STU-2 mission CubeSats. Credit: Xinhua News
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Having launched more than 200 Long March rockets since 1970s, China currently possesses world's 2nd largest satellite constellation in-orbit after the US. It has own space station, navigation, national defense space systems, and other space technologies and opportunities available for space super-powers.

What is more, in the nearest future China is to introduce heavy-lift Long March 5 (payload capacity into a geostationary transfer orbit is 14 ton), much larger orbital station, and a number of deep-space exploration missions, such as Chang'e-5 lunar lander scheduled for launch in 2017. It seems like Chinese 'long march' to space exploration leadership shows sound and viable results (below - artwork of a Long March rocket made by Chinese media).

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