Rockets of Today

KUÀIZHŌU (快舟), KĀITUÒZHĒ (开拓者), LONG MARCH 11, SMART DRAGON (Jiélóng, 捷龙), KINETICA (Lìjiàn/Zhōngkē 力箭/中科), LANDSPACE (Zhūquè, 朱雀), OS-M, HYPERBOLA (Shuāng Qūxiàn, 双曲线), CERES (Gūshénxīng, 谷神星), GRAVITY (Yǐnlì, 引力) — 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.

Kaituozhe

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. But only after the government tried it first.

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 apparently 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

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’s 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 reportedly planned to raise the 1A’s cadence to about one launch every ten weeks... but they only managed a single launch. They went silent for almost a year, but in late 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 debut flight of the larger Kuaizhou 11, which failed. Two more years went by before the second try reached orbit. 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.)

Long March 11

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 may have effectively replaced it. (I’m sure CASC would like to sell both, and though the Kaituozhe seems completely inferior on paper, maybe the government will decide to find a use for it anyway.) The Long March 11 first flew in 2015, and so far, it’s been reliable. It is starting to occasionally do commercial payloads. 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. It does launch from a truck.

Long March 11H

Or from the deck of a ship, which gives them the opportunity to take off from near the equator. This version is dubbed the 11H. In the picture, you will notice a big cloud of black smoke during the launch. This smoke does not come from the rocket itself, but from a sort of torpedo tube that spits it up into the air, where it ignites. (This does seem like a very military way of launching a rocket.) You’d think they could just use compressed air instead of this smoky shit, but whatever. The same tube thingy is used for launches from land. In fact, to launch at sea they apparently just drive the usual truck onto a barge.

Smart Dragon

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 said that they would 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. It ended up being the Smart Dragon 3 that flew next, before the original even made a second try. The cool thing about the 3 was that it launched from a ship at sea.

Kinetica

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... and now they’ve started calling it Kinetica-1 in English. (Lijian means “powerful 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, which took off from a new pad they built at the venerable Jiuquan spaceport. Of course, like every rocket company, they’re promising all kinds of bigger and better liquid fueled wonders in the future.

The ship-launched Smart Dragon 3 that I mentioned above is nearly the same rocket as the Lijian-1. The little info I have says the two might have the same stages all the way up the stack. The Lijian was first to fly, by five months. The sea-launched Smart Dragon looks like it might have a bigger fairing... other than that they appear the same. When launched from a barge they hang it over the side so the flames hit the water.

LandSpace

And finally, we come to the new fully commercial startups. LandSpace is a Chinese company that aims 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. 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 turned 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 more likely 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. Unfortunately, it seems that they then got cut off by their solid booster supplier, perhaps having run out of money. But then they got new funding, and decided to drop Zhuque-1 and try for a Zhuque-2 in 2021. Maybe they looked at all the other solids and decided they needed to stand out. Now most of these companies say they’re going to make bigger better stuff later on, including liquid fueled rockets, but LandSpace was the first to actually back up their big talk and build something. You can read about that in this article. The short version is that among those going liquid, they were the first to launch but not the first to reach orbit.

OneSpace

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. That was in 2019 and nothing has happened since. Reportedly, their solid rocket motors are recycled from decommissioned missiles.

Hyperbola

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, which has recently built a small moon lander) 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. The Hyperbola-1 succeeded on its first attempt, but then failed on the next three. The company may now be dying.. . but under the Chinese Communist Party it’s very difficult to shut down a company just because it loses money.

Ceres

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, and now that they’ve done multiple successful launches, they are now the stars of this sector of the launch market.

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.

Gravity

After Ceres showed how it’s done, another company came along with an impressive take of its own: Orienspace or Dōngfāng Kōngjiān (东方空间), which just means Eastern Space. Their Gravity-1 rocket not only orbited sats on its first try, it also set a new record for the biggest solid fuel launcher — nearly as chonky as the OmegA would have been. To do this, they put four full-sized side boosters around the core, which ignites later and acts as a second stage. Then a shortened version of the same motor acts as the third stage, and a small solid motor on top completes the stack. This can lift 6.5 metric tons, they say. It launched from a barge at sea.

Their followup plans are to first make a Gravity-1A by making a liquid fueled top stage, which should help make their orbits more precise, and then to work on a Gravity-2 with a reusable kerosene-fueled core and solid side-pipes, able to lift 25 tons or more. Then they envision a Gravity-3 with three kerosene stages side by side for greater reusability, and a capacity above 30 tons. They said they expected to have Gravity-2 ready less than two years after their maiden launch, which is hard to believe, but then I was caught completely flat-footed by the Gravity-1, as I had been paying the company no attention whatsoever. If they do get that working, they won’t be stuck on this grab-bag page anymore.

and the winner is...

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 on their second attempt, but the wait for that keeps getting longer. 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 had the shortest time to a second attempt, and was the first to show they could succeed twice. Now they’re launching as much as the other independents put together, though not as much as the Kuaizhou or Long March 11 from the big aerospace contractors. This leaves Galactic Energy as the only company so far to made the transition to being a regular launch provider instead of a hopeful startup.

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, as LandSpace has.

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 few years old. They also have their own article, though info remains scant, and it may have been premature to treat them as credible.

Kaituozhe 2: mass 40 t?, diam 2.25 m?, thrust unknown, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload >0.3 t? (>0.75%?), cost unknown, record 1/0/2? through 2022 (final?).

Kuaizhou 1A: mass 30 t, diam 1.4 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload 0.3 t (1.2%), cost $20M/t, record 27/0/2 through April 2024.

Kuaizhou 11: mass 78 t, diam 2.25 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload 1.0 t (1.3%), cost $10M/t, record 2/0/1 through May 2024.

Long March 11: mass 58 t, diam 2.0 m, thrust 1200 kN, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload 0.7 t (1.2%), cost unknown, record 17/0/0 through April 2024.

Smart Dragon 1: mass 23 t, diam 1.2 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload >0.2 t (0.9%), cost unknown, record 1/0/0 through 2023 (final?).

Kinetica/Lijian-1: mass 135 t, diam 2.65 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload 2 t? (1.5%), cost unknown, record 3/0/0 through April 2024.

Smart Dragon/Jielong 3: mass 145 t, diam 2.65 m, thrust unknown, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload 2 t? (1.5%), cost unknown, record 3/0/0 through April 2024.

LandSpace/Zhuque-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).

OS-M: mass unknown, diam 1.4 m?, thrust unknown, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload 0.2 t, cost unknown, record 0/0/1 through 2023 (final?).

Hyperbola-1: mass 42 t, diam 1.4 m, thrust 770 kn, imp ~2.7 km/s, solid fuel, payload 0.3 t (0.7%), cost unknown, record 2/1/3 through 2023.

Ceres-1: mass unknown, diam 1.4 m, thrust 590 kN, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload 0.35 t, cost $12M/t, record 12/0/1 through May 2024.

Gravity-1: mass 405 t?, diam 2.65 m? (~8 m at base), thrust 5880 kN?, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload 6.5 t (1.6%), cost unknown, record 1/0/0 through April 2024.