Rockets of Today

KUÀIZHŌU (快舟), KĀITUÒZHĒ (开拓者), LONG MARCH 11, SMART DRAGON (Jiélóng, 捷龙), LÌJIÀN/ZHŌNGKĒ (力箭/中科), LANDSPACE (Zhūquè, 朱雀), OS-M, HYPERBOLA (Shuāng Qūxiàn, 双曲线), CERES (Gūshénxīng, 谷神星) — China, 2013...

China has lots of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, most of them named Dōngfēng (东风, “East Wind”), which gets abbreviated as DF- in western military discussions. But only a few of them live in silos, or in submarines. China has found an easier way to keep them mobile, concealable, and survivable: mount their launchers on wheels. Each missile sits on a Transporter-Erector-Launcher, which is either a railroad car or, more commonly, a large heavy truck. The trucks are said to be capable of crossing fairly rough terrain. These mobile missiles use solid fuel for all stages, and can be prepped for launch in minutes.

So naturally, some folks tried to adapt these truck-based missiles for orbital use, and now that China’s government is encouraging space enterpreneurship, quite a few companies are trying this adaptation as a way of getting a toe into the door. The Kaituozhe (“Pioneer”) was the first rocket to make the attempt, though not the first to succeed. Very little is publicly known about it. Apparently, the Kaituozhe 1 made its first try for orbit in 2002, but never got there. At least two attempts were made, and possibly four. A Kaituozhe 2 finally got a satellite to orbit in 2017. They probably launched it from a fixed pad. One rumor says there’s a 2A variant that uses side boosters. The missile it was based on is probably the DF-31, the longest-range wheeled ballistic missile in their currently deployed arsenal, which makes it significantly larger than some of the rival rockets described below. The missile has three solid stages; the Kaituozhe may have more, we don’t know. Kaituozhe is made by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, known as CASC, a major government contractor.

Kuaizhou 1A

The rival China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) came up with the Kuaizhou (“Swift Vessel”). It’s made by a subsidiary of theirs called ExPace. This rocket is quite a bit smaller than the Kaituozhe, and it can still be launched from a truck. This means that satellites can be sent up on very short notice, for instance if there’s a sudden need to replace a bad one. Backup sats can be stored already attached to the rocket. Though not as secretive as the Kaituozhe, we still know rather little about it. It may have three stages, and an optional fourth, but this is uncertain. Its first stage is apparently based on the DF-21, which in its military form has two stages and a range of well under 2000 kilometers, and is apparently designed mainly for use against aircraft carriers. Some upper stages come from an antisatellite missile called the SC-19, which rode that same booster.

So far, this particular model has shown no signs of public commercialization, but usage is ramping up fast. The first Kuaizhou 1 orbited in 2013, with the 1A following in 2017, and in 2018 they planned to raise the 1A’s cadence to about one launch every ten weeks. They went silent for much of 2019 but near the end of 2019 they picked up the pace sharply, launching two in November and two in December — the latter two both on the same day. 2020 saw a failure followed by a one year hiatus, after which they got a few more good launches and then a second failure, which is odd as their earlier flights were trouble free. The Kuaizhou launchers are under 100% military control even if the payloads are civilian.

After long delays, 2020 saw the (failed) debut flight of the larger Kuaizhou 11. They say this bigger one will bring prices well under $10 million per ton. They’re talking up the possibility of building quite large solid rockets in the future: a Kuaizhou 21 to carry twenty tons, and a Kuaizhou 31 to carry seventy. These obviously would not launch from a truck, but the 11 does, despite its 78 ton bulk. After all, the military is apparently developing a DF-41 as a truck launched missile, and that is thought to weigh about eighty tons. The Kuaizhou 11 may be based on the DF-41 — we don’t know.

(CASIC has also announced plans to develop a reusable spaceplane — in fact, a double spaceplane where both stages land on a runway. It’s called Tengyun, and should get its own section if they get it to a point where it’s more than paper and hype.)

Now comes the Long March 11, the first solid-fuel small launcher to carry the name used by the major rockets of China’s space program. It was built by CASC, makers of the Kaituozhe, and might end up being its replacement. (I’m sure CASC would like to sell both, and though the Kaituozhe seems completely inferior on paper, maybe the government will decide to keep it active anyway.) The Long March 11 first flew in 2015, and so far, it’s been reliable. It has four stages, as is not uncommon when solid fuel is used. Its size is smaller than the Kaituozhe but larger than the Kuaizhou 1A. It appears that they have no problem with making solid motors in lots of different diameters — something that most builders would try to avoid. I don’t think they’re interested in launching this from a truck... no point to it.

Long March 11H

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be portable: in 2019 they started launching it from the deck of a ship, which gives them the opportunity to take off from near the equator. This version is dubbed the 11H.

Or maybe CASC won’t care about the Kaituozhe, because now they’ve got a subsidiary called Chinarocket which has a new product series called Smart Dragon or Jielong. The Jielong-1 (or SD-1) is much smaller than a Kaituozhe or a Long March 11, or even a Kuaizhou 1, aiming for a capacity of only 200 kilograms to sun-sync orbit. We heard nothing about it until it was nearly ready to fly, and its first test was a success. It has four solid stages and takes off from a transporter-erector-launcher, requiring only 24 hours of prep and checkout before a launch. The one distinctive and unusual feature of this rocket is that the payload and topmost stage are mounted upside down, so that the nose cone is a cover for the upper stage nozzle rather than for the payload itself. This does mean that most payloads should not be wider than the 1.2 meters of the rocket body itself, though they do have the option of a 1.4 meter fairing if you really need it. They say that they will next turn their design ambitions to a medium-large liquid-fueled rocket with some as-yes-undetermined form of reusability, to be called Ténglóng (腾龙, “Flying Dragon”, I think). They are also making Jielong variants 2 and 3 more or less simultaneously, but I don’t know how they will differ.

Another established aerospace giant with a solid rocket spinoff is the China Academy of Sciences, which is far better known for making satellites than for building launchers. Their spinoff is called CAS Space, or more formally, Beijing Zhongke Aerospace Exploration Technology Co Ltd, and the rocket is called either Lijian-1 or Zhongke-1, take your pick. (Lijian translates as “force arrow” — no idea if Zhongke means anything.) It’s a chonker — the phattest of these private solid rockets, with a capacity of a ton and a half to SSO, which is similar to a first-gen Vega. It has four stages, all solid, and I haven’t heard about any missile it might be based on — some say it comes from the DF-31, but if so I’d guess it’s only by way of inspiration, as this is bigger in diameter and way way heavier. They made a splash in 2022 by succeeding on their first launch, carrying six sats. Of course, like every rocket company, they’re promising all kinds of bigger and better liquid fueled wonders in the future.

And finally, we come to the new fully commercial startups. LandSpace is a Chinese company that sells launches, and their first rocket is the LandSpace-1, or Zhuque-1. (Zhūquè / 朱雀 means “Vermilion Bird”, which is a constellation or zodiacal region. The company name in Chinese is 蓝箭 or Lán Jiàn, which means Blue Arrow.) Early info said this was apparently a variant of the Long March 11, but this turns out to be wrong: the specs are similar to those of a Kuaizhou 1, and it may also be based on a DF-21 booster, or perhaps on the newer DF-26 anti-carrier missile, which has a longer range. Apparently they do launch this from a truck. They attempted a maiden flight in late 2018, which failed to reach orbit but didn’t miss by much. They want to follow it up later with a liquid fueled rocket, and say they’re building a methane-burning engine called Tianque-12 (or SkyLark-12) for it, plus a smaller Tianque-11. Unfortunately, it seems that they’ve been cut off by their solid booster supplier, and may now be out of the race? No wait, they’re back in, with new funding, and are apparently planning to skip Zhuque-1 and try a Zhuque-2 in 2021. They say they have now done many minutes of test stand firing on their methane engines, while apparently making no further attempt to redeem their failed solid-fuel launch. Maybe they looked at all the other solids and decided they needed to stand out.

Here come some more startups. OneSpace (零壹空间 / Líng Yī Kōngjiān, “Zero One Space”) offers the OS-M with a 0.2 ton capacity, to be followed by an OS-M2 and OS-M4 with side boosters to handle up to 0.75 tons. On this rocket, the upper stages are skinnier than the booster (which might be another DF-21 or DF-26 copy); this may also be true of some of the other similar models. So far, they have made one orbital launch attempt with the OS-M, which failed. Reportedly, their solid rocket motors are recycled from decommissioned missiles.

And i-Space (or 星际荣耀 / Xīngjì Róngyào, “Interstellar Glory”, also sometimes called “Space Honor”, and not to be confused with ispace of Japan) has a similar rocket called the Hyperbola-1 which aims to lift 0.3 tons. (I’m certainly noticing the trend for using fake Silicon Valley-sounding company names in English. “ExPace” may be the worst, as a blatant knockoff of SpaceX’s name.) The Hyperbola — also sometimes called the SQX-1 — was reported to have a liquid fueled kick stage atop three solid stages, but their manual lists four solid stages. The first stage has grid fins at the bottom, as do the Kuaizhou rockets. They plan to follow it with a Hyperbola-2 which will have a 1.9 ton goal, with a reusable methane-burning booster. (Nice work if you can get it.) They’ve even started hyping a hyperbola-3, which will have multi-booster configurations and a capacity near 14 tons with one core. As far as I can ascertain, the Hyperbola-1 has yet another DF-21 or DF-26 being used as the first stage. (The military rockets do not use fins.) Both OneSpace and i-Space have previously launched suborbital rockets.

Ceres 1

Another company, appearing by surprise, is Galactic Energy (Xīnghé Dònglì / 星河动力). They not only launched their Ceres-1 (or Gūshénxīng-1) successfully on the first attempt, they did so with relatively little schedule slippage. This company seems to have more on the ball than most small nu-space outfits. The Ceres has three solid stages, and a little liquid fueled topper inside the fairing, integrated with the cubesat deployer. I could not find much more info than that, except that they plan to hoist up to 350 kilograms for a $4 million flat price. They hope to next work on a kerosene burning rocket to be called the Pallas-1. So far, they have tested a preburner. They openly describe this “Welkin” engine they’re working on as an imitation Merlin.

The Hyperbola was the first of these independent rockets to successfully reach orbit, the Smart Dragon was second (if you count it as independent), and the Ceres was third. The OS-M hopes to do so soon on their second attempt, and LandSpace hopes to try again with their new design. All of these companies had long quiet periods after their first launch attempts — nobody was ready for ongoing production. In the case of the Hyperbola, the second rocket was significantly taller and heavier than the first one was... and this time it failed. Even without changes like that, despite all five companies having built and launched completed rockets, definite specs on them are still not easy to come by. The Ceres was the first to show they could succeed twice.

One startup which does not belong in this bucket is LinkSpace (翎客航天, “Líng-kè Aerospace”), who are working on a liquid-fueled reusable launcher called New Line. They have their own article in the “Not Flown Yet” section. Anyone above can also get one if they manage to graduate from solid fuel vocational school. LandSpace is the first to get an article for their promised liquid-fueled rocket, as it seems fairly close to complete.

Another one which doesn’t fit here is Beijing Deep Blue Aerospace Technology Co. Ltd., which is building a small kerosene-lox rocket called Nebula-1, to be followed eventually by a larger Nebula-2. They are only a couple of years old. They also have their own article, though info remains scant.

Kaituozhe 2: mass 40 t?, diam 2.25 m?, thrust unknown, imp unknown, type S, payload >0.3 t? (>0.75%?), cost unknown, record 1/0/2? through 2021.

Kuaizhou 1A: mass 30 t, diam 1.4 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, type S, payload 0.3 t (1.2%), cost $20M/t, record 15/0/2 through June 2022.

Kuaizhou 11: mass 78 t, diam 2.25 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, type S, payload 1.0 t (1.3%), cost $10M/t, record 0/0/1 through 2021.

Long March 11: mass 58 t, diam 2.0 m, thrust 1200 kN, imp unknown, type S, payload 0.7 t (1.2%), cost unknown, record 12/0/0 as of Apr 30, 2022.

Smart Dragon 1: mass 23 t, diam 1.2 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, type S, payload >0.2 t (0.9%), cost unknown, record 1/0/0 through 2021.

Lijian-1: mass 135 t, diam 2.65 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, type S, payload 2 t? (1.5%), cost unknown, record 1/0/0 through Aug 2022.

LandSpace-1: mass 27 t, diam 1.35m, thrust 440 kN, imp unknown, type S, payload 0.3 t (1.1%), cost unknown, record 0/0/1 through 2021.

OS-M: mass unknown, diam 1.4 m?, thrust unknown, imp unknown, type S, payload 0.2 t, cost unknown, record 0/0/1 through 2021.

Hyperbola-1: mass 42 t, diam 1.4 m, thrust 770 kn, imp ~2.7 km/s, type S, payload 0.3 t (0.7%), cost unknown, record 1/0/3 through May 2022.

Ceres-1: mass unknown, diam 1.4 m, thrust 590 kN, imp unknown, type S, payload 0.35 t, cost $12M/t, record 2/0/0 through 2021.