Launch 2020: China’s Space Program Continued to Surge with a Number of Firsts

Long March 3B lifts off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center. (Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Group)

China’s surging space program showed no sign of slowing down last year as it tied its own launch record and moved ahead with ambitious space missions and a set of new launchers.

China compiled a record of 35 successes and four failures in 2020. That matched the number of launch attempts made in 2018, a year that saw 38 successes and a single failure.

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Launch 2020: A Busy Year Filled with Firsts in the Face of COVID-19 Pandemic

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls & Joel Kowsky)

SpaceX dominated, China surged and Russia had another clean sheet as American astronauts flew from U.S. soil again in a year of firsts.

First in a series

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a very busy launch year with a number of firsts in both human and robotic exploration. A total of 114 orbital launches were attempted, with 104 successes and 10 failures. It was the same number of launches that were conducted in 2018, with that year seeing 111 successes, two failures and one partial failure.

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China’s Long March 8 Rocket Makes Successful Debut in Step Toward Reusability

Long March 8 launches for the first time on Dec. 22, 2020. (Credit: CNSA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

China’s newest booster, Long March 8, successfully placed five satellites into sun-synchronous orbit on Tuesday from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in a step toward partial reusability.

The medium-lift booster blasted off at 12:37 p.m. local time from Hainan island carrying the classified XJY-7 remote sensing technology test satellite and four smaller payloads.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 Launches NRO Payload in Record 26th Successful Flight of Year

Falcon 9 launches the NROL-108 mission on Dec. 19, 2020. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (SpaceX PR) — On Saturday, December 19 at 9:00 a.m. EST, Falcon 9 launched the NROL-108 mission from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, completing SpaceX’s 26th and final mission of 2020.

Falcon 9’s first stage booster previously supported launch of SpaceX’s 19th and 20th cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station, a Starlink mission, and the SAOCOM 1B mission.

Following stage separation, SpaceX landed Falcon 9’s first stage on Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida – the 70th landing for SpaceX.

Editor’s Note: SpaceX’s 26 launches is a new record for Elon Musk’s company in a calendar year. It was America’s 44th and final orbital launch attempt of the year. That is the highest number in more than 50 years.

Overall, there have been 110 launch attempts with 10 failures worldwide. Two more launches — Long March 8 from China, and a Soyuz-2 from Kourou — are scheduled before the end of the year. It’s possible China or Russia could conduct additional launches; these countries don’t always announce flights very far in advance.

Meet the Long March 8

Long March 8 (Credit: CCTV 13)

Riddle me this: what has grid fins, lands on an offshore platform and honors a famous military retreat?

If you said SpaceX’s Falcon 9, you’d be wrong.

Meet the China’s latest launch vehicle, the Long March 8. Set for a flight test later this year, the rocket is that nation’s attempt to reuse a first stage booster.

I had trouble embedding the report, but here’s a link to it that includes an animation of the descent and landing. https://www.weibo.com/tv/v/Iq2C4AEhH?fid=1034:4462065528799258

China Aims for Reusable Rocket Test in 2021

Falcon 9 first stage comes in for a landing after launching the Zuma payload. (Credit: SpaceX)

This whole reusable booster thing seems to be catching on.

China aims to recover the first stage of the Long March-8 carrier rocket, which is still under development and is expected to make its maiden flight around 2021, according to a Chinese rocket expert.

It was part of China’s endeavors to develop reusable space vehicles, Long Lehao, chief designer of carrier rockets at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, told a space conference in Harbin, capital of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province.

The Long March-8 rocket will have two stages and two boosters: the first stage and boosters are expected to be retrieved through vertical landing, said Long, who is also an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

If successful, the new rocket would provide commercial launch services to customers around the globe, Long said.

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China’s Long March 5 Rocket to Return to Flight in Busy Launch Year

Long March 5 on the launch pad. (Credit: China National Space Administration)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In recent weeks, Chinese officials have revealed more details about the investigation into the Long March 5 launch failure last year as well as their ambitious launch plans for this year, which include a landing on the far side of the moon.

Long March 5 will be returned to flight in the second half of 2018, according to Bao Weimin, head of the Science and Technology Committee of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Engineers have identified the cause of a launch failure that occurred last July and are working to verify it, he said.

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