Rockets of Today

TIĀNLÓNG (天龙) — China, 2023

It is entirely normal that new rockets built by private companies fail to reach orbit on the first try. Government-backed rockets often achieve this goal, but private companies, and especially startups, generally require some iteration before they can get the whole thing to work so that a payload stays up. It is especially difficult if they are using liquid fuel. A few companies have managed it with solid fuel: Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus and Galactic Energy’s Ceres for two, but no one ever did it with liquid fuel on the first try... until April of 2023, when a Chinese company called Space Pioneer, or more formally, Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., Ltd. (天兵科技), made it happen. They were none too confident, and had only a token payload, but they got it done.

(Of course, luck is a factor in this... look at i-Space’s solid-fuel Hyperbola, which stayed up on the first try and then failed on the next three.)

Space Pioneer was founded in 2015, one year after the government started its initiative to promote private spaceflight ventures, and the company attracted some capital... quite a modest amount by western standards. To produce something this successful on a smallish budget is genuinely impressive. Normally, the wise saying in rocketry is that in order to make a million, you have to spend a billion.

One example of a liquid fueled rocket failing on its initial attempt was the LandSpace 2, built by an outfit in direct competition with Space Pioneer. When that failed, it opened the door for another group to become the first private outfit in China to reach orbit without relying on solid fuel boosters built for the military. And Space Pioneer claimed that prize by taking a less risky approach than LandSpace, sticking with (as far as I can tell from the scant info available) a very traditional kerosene-and-lox gas generator for their engine. The Tianlong-2 has got three stages and is aiming for a two ton capacity. The bottom stage is supposed to have seven engines, and in the usual modern pattern, a vacuum version of the same engine is used for the second stage.

Of course they plan to make the Tianlong-3 a bigger one, like every other small rocket company. They hope the bigger one will help put up China’s national internet constellation. “Tianlong” would traditionally be translated as “heavenly dragon”, but nowadays the word tiān also sometimes gets used to refer to space.

If this description is sounding all “more of the same” to you, it is to me too, which is why I totally missed that this company was an up-and-comer. I didn’t write this page until they were actually rolling the finished rocket out to the pad!

Their concept art shows the rocket with landing legs and grid fins that look like direct copies from those of the Falcon 9, though on a much less elongated rocket. It sounds like the original idea was that the Tianlong-1 would be the non-reusable version (with a three ton capacity) and then adding reusability would turn it into the Tianlong-2... but now, the one they flew is being called the 2 with no legs or fins on it.

They’ve also made noise about working with “green” propellants. Maybe that’s for their topper, which appears to be a flat little orbit-trimming kick stage.

So how did they do it? Apparently for the initial flight, they did not use their own engines. Instead they built a booster using three YF-102 engines bought from the big aerospace contractor that also makes the larger YF-100 used in the new generation of Long March rockets. This was just a stopgap while they worked on their own new engine. Those YF-102 engines are now openly available to any buyer, apparently, and the sellers plan to soon offer a methane engine as well.

The one other thing which distinguishes the Tianlong is its fuel. It may seem chemically like any other highly refined kerosene, it’s different in that it’s refined from coal instead of petroleum. Since China has endless amounts of coal, this may make this form of fuel cheaper someday.

In 2024 they had some excitement that got them in the news: they test-fired a prototype Tianlong-3 main stage, and it escaped from its hold-down clamps, threw itself high into the air, lost some engines, and crashed in a large fireball. Even in China this would be a faux pas, even if this were out in the desert, which it wasn’t. This was within five kilometers of a substantial urban area in Gongyi — close enough to break some windows — and it could have gotten a lot closer if the engines had taken longer to start failing. Space Pioneer says it was a controlled shutdown, but the video evidence looks like the failures were a lot more random and messy than they would like us to believe. So the same company which got such accolades for succeeding on the first try where nobody else had before, now has a big black eye for such a reckless public fuckup.

The 3 is quite Falcon-like, with legs and grid fins and nine engines on the first stage, but not as skinny. These engines are called TF-12 and are quite comparable to the Merlin. And they are aiming for a very similar payload capacity. That’s why you may hear the rocket described as the AliExpress Falcon.

Tianlong-2: mass unknown, diam 3.35 m, thrust 1860 kN, imp unknown, gas generator? (kerosene), payload ~2 t, cost unknown, record 0/1/0 through 2023.