China Plans New Space Station, Two New Rockets in 2016

China Plans New Space Station, Two New Rockets in 2016

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) reports that China will launch a new space station and conduct test flights of two new rockets in 2016.

In a statement, CASC asserted that “more than 20 launches” are planned this year.  Among them are test launches of the new Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets. Both will launch from China’s new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. 

Long March 5 is designed to lift 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), making it China’s largest rocket.  The most capable U.S. rocket operational today is the Delta IV, which can place 28 metric tons into LEO.  Long March 7 is a smaller vehicle that will be used to launch cargo missions to Chinese space stations, for example. 

Launch of a new space station, Tiangong-2, also is on tap this year according to CASC, along with a crewed Shenzhou 11 mission.  That would mark just the sixth time China has launched astronauts (“taikonauts”) since the first in 2003.   Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 and visited by one robotic spacecraft, Shenzhou-8, and two three-person crews: Shenzhou-9 in 2012 and Shenzhou-10 in 2013.  Tiangong-1 was quite small (8.6 metric tons), but China has plans for a 60-metric ton space station in the early 2020s.   The International Space Station, by comparison, is about 400 metric tons.

Long March 5 and Long March 7 are manufactured and tested in Tianjin, China.  A chemical explosion in that city in August 2015 killed more than 100 people, but news reports did not indicate how close the Long March production facilities were to the blast site.

China tested two other new rockets last year:  Long March 6 and Long March 11.  Long March 6 is a liquid fueled rocket, while Long March 11 is solid fueled.  Both are relatively small rockets that placed microsatellites into orbit. 

The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center has been in development for many years and will become China’s fourth space launch site.  The other three are Jiuquan in the Gobi desert, China’s first launch site, which is used for the human spaceflight program and high inclination launches; Xichang, in southwestern China, for launches to geostationary orbit; and Taiyuan, south of Beijing, for launches to polar orbits.

Chinese space officials said last year than Tiangong-2 would be launched in 2016 using a Long March 5 and be serviced by a Tianzhou-1 cargo ship launched on a Long March 7.   CASC’s statement appears to confirm those plans.

CASC also noted that two Beidou navigation satellites and the Gaofen-3 high resolution earth observation satellite will be launched in 2016. 

Correction:  An earlier version of this article used CAST as the acronym for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.  The correct acronym is CASC.

Editor’s Note:  The original version of this article stated that the most capable U.S. launch vehicle is the Delta IV at 22 tons to LEO.  That was based on the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s “Year in Review” report for 2014.  However, the United Launch Alliance, which builds and launches Delta IV, says on its website that the Delta IV can place 28.370 metric tons into LEO. The higher figure reflects introduction of an uprated RS68A engine, whose first launch was in 2012.  FAA subsequently published its 2016 report (there is no edition labeled 2015) correcting its entry for the Delta IV, although it says it is 28.790 metric tons.   We have changed the value here to reflect what is stated on ULA’s website as of February 29, 2016, and also clarified that all values are in METRIC tons.


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