Beijing plans at least three new rockets – maybe reusables too

With over 100 launches planned this year alone, matching Musk makes sense

China's Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation has promised to launch three new rockets this year alone, and may also start to send reusable boosters into space next year.

Chinese media report that the Corp's R&D director Wang Wei this week disclosed that Beijing is prepping a pair of reusables. One will have a diameter of four meters, the other will reach five. By way of contrast, SpaceX's Falcon has a diameter of 3.7 meters and its Starship rounds out at nine meters, while NASA’s Space Launch System is 8.4 meters across.

This is no mere "mine's bigger than yours" contest. Diameter is an indication of a launcher's potential payload volume, but not necessarily the mass it can lift. Just what capability these boosters will bring to China's space program is therefore unclear.

Wei promised the smaller of the two will launch in 2025, and the big booster will follow a year later.

Reusable boosters make sense because they lower costs – a fact China surely understands. Its Aerospace Corp made a definitive statement this week in which it revealed plans for over 100 launches in 2024 alone.

Among those launches will be the debut of the following three rockets:

  • Long March-6C – a single-core two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle with a diameter of 3.35 meters. Beijing says it can "perform a variety of orbital launch missions with single satellite or multiple satellites";
  • Long March-12 – China's first single-core liquid launch vehicle with a diameter of 3.8 meters, capable of carrying 10 tons to near Earth orbit and at least six tons to a 700km sun-synchronous orbit, thanks to a two-stage configuration propelled by six liquid oxygen/kerosene engines;
  • Long March 8 – an updated version that increases second stage diameter from 3.0 to 3.35 meters, and thus increases payload.

The last rocket's second stage engine was successfully tested this week. This week also saw Taikonauts aboard China's space station conduct an extra-vehicular activity to perform maintenance – including patching up solar panels to address the impact of micrometeorites.

It's no coincidence that the above news was all dropped this week, as China's rubber stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, is in session for its annual deliberations.

China is justifiably proud of its space program, and aware of its strategic significance.

As is almost every other nation – many of which will be watching China's reusable rocketry adventures with keen interest. ®

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