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

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
June 24, 2021
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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.

China achieved a number of major milestones and firsts last year:

  • maiden launches of five new boosters;
  • successful flight of a new satellite launcher by a nominally private company;
  • first soil sample returned from the moon;
  • first launch of an orbiter and rover to Mars;
  • flight tests of a new deep-space crewed spacecraft and reusable cargo vehicle;
  • launch of a reusable space plane believed to be similar to the U.S. Space Force’s X-37B spacecraft; and
  • completion of Beidou satellite navigation system, which is a rival to the U.S. Global Positioning System.

Let’s take a closer look at what China accomplished in space last year.

2020 Launch Record: 35-4
2019 Launch Record: 32-2

Launch Vehicles: Ceres-1,* Kuaizhou 1, Kuaizhou 11, Long March 2 (C,D,F), Long March 3 (B,C), Long March 4 (B,C), Long March 5, Long March 5B,* Long March 6, Long March 7A,* Long March 8,* Long March 11,* Long March 11H
Launch Sites: Jiuquan, Taiyuan, Wenchang, Xichang, Yellow Sea (barge)

* Maiden flight

The Long March 2, Long March 3 and Long March 4 booster families flew a combined 25 times, making up 64 percent of all launch attempt. The single failure was by a Long March 3B in April.

Chinese Launches by Booster, 2020

Launch VehicleSuccessesFailuresTotal
Long March 2C, 2D, 2F10010
Long March 3B, 3C819
Long March 4B, 4C606
Long March 5, 5B*303
Long March 11, 11H303
Kuaizhou 1A213
Long March 6101
Long March 8*101
Kuaizhou 11*011
Long March 7A*011
* Maiden flight

There were three launches each of the Long March 5 and Long March 11 booster families. The Kuaizhou 1A rocket compiled a record of two successes and one failure. Five launchers flew one time apiece, with three successes and two failures.

Five launches involved either new boosters or variants of existing ones. Two launches succeeded and three failed.

Maiden Flights by New Chinese Launch Vehicles, 2020

Launch VehicleSuccessesFailuresTotalReason for Failure
Long March 5B101N/A
Long March 8101N/A
Kuaizhou 11011Not disclosed
Long March 7A011Not disclosed

Arguably the biggest Chinese launch of the year took place on July 23 when a Long March 5 rocket roared off the pad at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site with the nation’s first ever mission to Mars.

Tianwen-1 spacecraft (Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation)

China’s most powerful booster sent the Tianwen 1 mission on a 6.5 month voyage to the Red Planet. The mission included an orbiter designed to study the planet for two Earth years, a lander and a rover designed to operate for 90 sols (martian days) on the surface. The spacecraft successfully entered martian orbit on Feb. 10, 2021. The lander and rover landed on the surface in May.

On Nov. 24, China followed up Tianwen-1 by launching the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission from Wenchang aboard a Long March 5 rocket. The mission consisted of four elements: a lander with a drill and scooping system; an ascender on top of the lander to launch the sample into lunar orbit; an orbiter to fly the sample back to Earth; and a return capsule to enter Earth’s atmosphere and land by parachute.

Chang’e-5 entered lunar orbit on Nov. 28. Three days later, the lander and ascender touched down at Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms). After the lander collected samples weighing 1.731 kg (3.8 lb), the ascender took off on Dec. 3 and docked with the orbiter.

The return capsule landed under parachute in China on Dec. 16. It was the first lunar sample-return mission since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976. China became only the third country to return samples from the moon after the United States and Soviet Union.

Chang’e-5 capsule after landing under parachute in Inner Mongolia.

On Dec. 10, a Long March 11 rocket launched two satellites for the Gravitational Wave High-energy Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor (GECAM) mission. The spacecraft are detecting electromagnetic counterparts of gravitational waves and other astrophysical signals. The data will aid scientists in the study of black holes and neutron stars.

New Spacecraft Tested

Long March 5 launches the Chang’e-5 mission to the moon. (Credit: CNSA)

On May 5, China tested a variant of its most powerful booster and took a significant step forward toward sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. The maiden flight of the Long March 5B sent an an uncrewed prototype of China’s deep-space vehicle and the Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle into Earth orbit.

China’s new spacecraft is designed to carry as many as six astronauts, a capacity double that of the Shenzhou vehicle now in use. The spaceship is intended for use on Earth orbit and lunar missions.

The prototype returned to the Dongfeng landing site in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on May 8 after a flight that lasted 2 days, 19 hours and 49 minutes.

Chinese next-generation spacecraft descends under parachutes.

Long March 5B’s secondary payload didn’t fair as well. The Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle suffered an anomaly during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere on May 6, Chinese officials said.

Long March 5B is a modified version of the heavy-lift Long March 5 booster. The rocket is composed of the Long March 5 core stage with four strap-on, liquid boosters attached to it. The second stage is replaced with heavy payloads destined for Earth orbit.

The successful Long March 5B flight paved the way for the launch of China’s first permanent space station in 2021. The Tianhe core module was launched on April 29, 2021.

On Sept. 4, a Long March 2F rocket launched a reusable space vehicle from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. China released no details about the spacecraft, which is believed to resemble the U.S. Space Force’s reusable X-37B space plane.

Chinese media reported that the vehicle landed successfully at an unnamed location on Sept. 6 after two days in orbit. Experts believe it could have landed at an air base near China’s Lop Nor nuclear test site in the Taklamakan Desert.

Note: As of June 28, 2019. Adapted from Kazuhiro Kida and Shinichi Hashimoto, “China’s Version of GPS Now Has More Satellites than US Original,” Nikkei Asian Review, August 19, 2019.

China finished deployment of its Beidou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) with a pair of single satellite launches in March and June. BDS is a rival to the America’s Global Positioning System, Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation constellation, and Europe’s Galileo system.

The Beidou satellite launched in June was the 35th third generation spacecraft and the 59th in the series since the maiden flight in 2000. China is believed to have spent about $10 billion on the system since it was approved in 1994.

Galactic Energy Succeeds

Ceres-1 booster (Credit: Galactic Energy)

On Nov. 7, Galactic Energy became the second nominally private Chinese company to launch a satellite into orbit. The company’s four-stage, 19-meter (62.3 foot) tall Ceres-1 booster successfully orbited the Tianqi-11 satellite for the Apocalypse Internet of Things (IoT) constellation.

Ceres-1 consists of three solid-fuel stages that use hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene and a liquid fuel upper stage. The booster is capable of launching payloads weighing 350 kg (772 lb) into low Earth orbit and 230 kg (507 lb) into a 700 km (435 mile) high sun synchronous orbit.

Galactic Energy officials have said the company will charge customers a flat feel of US $4 million per launch.

Long March 8

China also launched the Long March 8 booster for the first time in December. The new rocket successfully orbited the XJY 7 technology satellite.

Long March 8’s first two stages are based on the Long March 7 and 7A launchers; the third stage is derived from the Long March 3 booster family. Long March 8 is capable of placing 4,500 kg (9,921 lb) into a 700 km (435 mile) sun-synchronous orbit. A future variant of the new rocket will incorporate the ability to land the first stage and its two side boosters as a unit for reuse.

Launch Failures

China suffered four launch failures, two involving rockets on their maiden flights. On March 16, a Long March 7A rocket failed to orbit the XJY 6 satellite. The booster is a variant of the Long March 7 launcher augmented with a third stage. Officials did not disclose a reason for the failure.

Three weeks later, a Long March 3B rocket failed when its third stage suffered an anomaly. Lost in the accident was the Chinese-built spacecraft Palapa N1 communications satellite, which was designed to provide service to Indonesia.

Kuaizhou 11 lifts off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

The Chang Guang Satellite Technology Co. lost two Jilin commercial Earth imaging satellites on separate launches. On July 10, a Kuaizhou 11 rocket failed on its maiden launch. The Centispace-1-S2 microsatellite was also lost in the accident.

On Sept. 12, the Kuaizhou 1A rocket failed to reach orbit with the Jilin 1 Gaofen 02C Earth observation satellite aboard. Two other Kuaizhou 1A rocket launches succeeded last year.

The Kuaizhou family of rockets is manufactured and launched by ExPace, a commercial subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC).

Chinese Launches by Spaceport

Long March 2D lifts off from Jiuquan on July 5, 2020. (Credit: CASC)

The Xichang and Jiquan spaceports supported 13 launches each. The 26 flights accounted for two thirds of China’s 39 launches in 2020. Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center added another seven launches to the total.

Chinese Launches by Spaceport, 2020

Yellow Sea101

The five launches from Wenchang nearly doubled the total number of flights from the spaceport to 11. The first launch from China’s only seaside spaceport was conducted in June 2016. Wenchang is becoming increasingly important as China launches more deep-space missions and space station elements using the heavy-lift Long March 5 and 5B rockets.

China launched a Long March 11H rocket from a converted barge in the Yellow Sea. It was the second sea-based launch of the rocket, which is capable of placing payloads weighing 700 kg (1,543 lb) into low Earth orbit and 350 kg (772 lb) into a 700 km (435 mile) high sun synchronous orbit.

Tomorrow: Russia’s quality improves, but its output drops