Chinese company's rocket debut makes waves by launching from the sea

Real-life Kerbal Space Program?

A Chinese startup has launched its first rocket from a sea-based platform, sending three satellites into orbit.

The Gravity-1 rocket was launched at 0530 UTC on January 11 from the waters off the coast of Haiyang in China's Shandong Province. The mission was the first launch of the YL-1 commercial carrier rocket by Orienspace.

According to Chinese media, the 30-metre rocket is "the world's most powerful solid-propellant launch vehicle." It consists of three core stages and four boosters and has a total liftoff thrust of 600 tons.

It is capable of sending a 6.5 tons payload to low-Earth orbit or 4.2 tons to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit. The three satellites sent to orbit were remote-sensing spacecraft designed to peer back at Earth for meteorological purposes.

Orienspace was founded in 2020 by veterans from Chinese state-owned space enterprises. It is the fifth private Chinese company to have its own carrier rocket, and according to Chinese media mouthpieces, the rocket is the most powerful to have been developed by a private Chinese company.

Launching from sea is not a novel concept. In September 2023, Galactic Energy, another Chinese private space launch company, launched four satellites atop its Ceres-1S rocket – the "S" indicating a sea launch – from a platform in the Yellow Sea. Ceres-1 is, however, nowhere near as powerful as Orienspace's rocket. It is capable of sending 300 kg to a Sun-synchronous orbit.

Between 1999 and 2014, a multinational company called Sea Launch managed 36 launches from its floating platform using the Zenit-3SL carrier rocket. The three-stage Zenit-3SL is capable of sending just over 6 tons to a geostationary transfer orbit.

While launching from sea can present challenges, the benefits include a potential boost in the payload, a reduction in range conflicts, and less risk of bits of rocket raining down on populated areas. Lest we forget, China has form when it comes to rocket parts falling on civilians.

There is no firm date for a launch for Gravity-2, which might be at least partially liquid-fueled. As for Gravity-1 with its strap-on boosters, we'd have to concur with a commentator who noted: "That's one kerbal looking rocket." ®

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