Rockets of Today

LANDSPACE (Zhūquè, 朱雀) — China, 2022


As mentioned in the article on generic Chinese solid rockets, LandSpace is a company that wants to sell launches, and their first rocket was the LandSpace-1, or Zhuque-1. (Zhūquè / 朱雀 means “Vermilion Bird”, which is a constellation or zodiacal region.) Like the other competing small-payload solid-fuel launchers in the country, this was based on existing rocket stages built for ballistic missiles, and like many Chinese missiles, the LandSpace-1 took off from a Transporter-Erector-Launcher vehicle — a big truck built for the military — rather than from a pad. This was one of the smaller missile-derived launchers, aiming for a payload of just 300 kilograms. They attempted a maiden flight in late 2018. It fell short of reaching orbit because of a problem in the third stage.

Naturally we all assumed that they would take a second shot in a few months, but in what turned out to be a not uncommon pattern among Chinese startups, years went by and no second attempt happened. Eventually a rumor surfaced which said that the rocket motor supplier had cut them off. (No idea whether their competitor OneSpace is having the same trouble, but it kind of looks that way.)

Around that time, LandSpace announced that they would not bother with any more solid rockets — they were not interested in redeeming the Zhuque-1. Instead they would proceed directly with developing its liquid-fueled successor. And then they got fresh funding. (The previous loss of access to solid motors may have had to do with lack of money — we don’t know, but it’s the obvious assumption.)

The company was only founded in 2016, by a young MBA named Zhang Changwu. So they do seem to know how to move forward quickly. The company’s actual name is Lán Jiàn Kōngjiān Kējì (蓝箭空间科技), which translates as Blue Arrow Space Technology, so in Chinese neither the company nor the rocket has “land” in its name. There isn’t a lot of info available out there, and the company’s website is in Chinese only, but I think I can gather some facts and figures from it.

The engine for this new rocket is called Tianque-12, or SkyLark-12, and it burns liquid methane in a gas-generator cycle. (A lot of new rockets both large and small are embracing methane as their fuel, making it very trendy, but at that time none had actually flown yet.) Their bottom stage has four of these engines — a layout which might need to change when they try to make it reusable later on. (Going for reusability is one thing that attracts engine designers toward using methane, as it doesn’t produce any fouling gunk or soot the way kerosene does.) At present the engines are doing a bit over 650 kilonewtons apiece, but they are claiming it can do 780. Part of the discrepancy might be the difference between sea-level and vacuum performance.

The upper stage has one Tianque-12 with an enlarged bell for vacuum, and a vernier engine with four nozzles called Tianque-11, which they use for steering because the 12 has no ability to gimball. They intend to add that to the next version.

The whole rocket has a capacity of six metric tons, though you may also hear a figure of eight tons mentioned. Not sure which is accurate. Maybe it will be eight if the higher thrust performance is achieved? Overall this makes it roughly comparable to a Long March 4c or 6a, and it does share its tank diameter of 3.35 meters with the classic Long March designs. It’s launched from the old Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert, where they built themselves a new pad.

They sent it up in December of 2022 — two or three years late according to their original schedule, which in this business is not bad. I hadn’t even put it into my list of upcoming anticipated launches, because I had regarded them as just another startup which was perpetually promising to be within a year of launch. But they proved I had underestimated them, and got it off the ground. The first stage apparently worked fine, but the second did not. They were not forthcoming about the outcome... the leading theory among outside observers may be that the final burn for orbital insertion was supposed to be done by the vernier engine alone (because the main engine would have had too much acceleration), and it failed to start.

Despite the failure, the flight is historical because of all the rockets that plan to reach orbit by burning methane, this was the first to fly. They beat Blue Origin, SpaceX, ULA, Relativity Space, Zero II Infinity, and Roscosmos (though SpaceX did do suborbital tests on methane). I have no reason to doubt them as now being the most important company among China’s space startups... or at least that was what I thought until Space Pioneer beat them to orbit.

LandSpace-1: mass 27 t, diam 1.35m, thrust 440 kN, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload 0.3 t (1.1%), cost unknown, record 0/0/1 (final).

LandSpace-2: mass 216 t, diam 3.35m, thrust 2630 kN, imp unknown, gas generator (methane), payload 6 t (2.7%), cost unknown, record 0/0/1 through 2022.