China plans to take the fight to SpaceX with its reusable rocket program

The project aims to cut the cargo cost per kilogram to 5 percent of that of the existing Long March rockets. 
Jijo Malayil
Carrier Rocket Launch In The Clouds
Carrier Rocket Launch In The Clouds


In response to advancements in the United States’ reusable rocket technology, especially being offered by SpaceX, Chinese space authorities have launched a counter-offensive to lower the costs of its space programs.

According to a report by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), a new rocket launching system in China, which is under development, aims to cut the cargo cost per kilogram to 5 percent to that of the existing Long March rockets. 

The project, Long-Range Aerospace Transportation System, which is under the purview of its largest aerospace defense contractor, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), is equipped to carry a payload of more than 60 tonnes of cargo to near-Earth orbit, which is equatable to the carrying capacity of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

A critical step in advancing China's space ambitions

The new project envisages a hypersonic plane that has a top speed crossing Mach 20, and this vessel "could deliver the same payload from Shanghai to an airport in San Francisco in less than an hour," according to project lead scientist Song Zhengyu, of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, a CASC subsidiary in Beijing.

A research paper published by the team regarding the project details the requirement for the plane to be reused more than 100 times and have fewer than three failures per 1,000 flights. Researchers said the objectives were set after analyzing the pace of China's technological advancements and international progress "pioneered by SpaceX."

The success of the project will further China's plans to develop a broadband mega constellation later this year to compete against SpaceX's Starlink. To achieve this, the country will have to establish a 13,000-satellite low-Earth orbit network in the next few years.

Efforts to reduce the cost to $150 per kilogram

China’s Long March rockets have helped greatly in furthering the country's space programs, as it offers one of the cheapest costs, rated at $3,000 per kilogram of cargo lifted to the lower-Earth orbit. In comparison, NASA's services are estimated to cost more than $60,000 per kilogram put in orbit, according to SCMP

According to CASC, SpaceX making use of its reusable Falcon 9 rockets, has managed to lower to cost to match the Chinese Long March ones. It is believed that SpaceX could be able to reduce the cost to a few hundred dollars per kilogram. The Chinese authorities are determined to reduce payload cost down to about $150 per kilogram as the space race gets more competitive in the coming years. 

China has already tested its new reusable transport system in the Gobi Desert. The novel launch was done in 2021, in which its space plane was blasted off, entered the Earth's orbit, and safely touched down. The second test was successfully conducted in August 2022, which proved the operational efficiency of the program. However, researchers say the tests were done using a smaller version of the actual product, and the project is still a few years away from entering commercial services.

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