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China, South Korea and Iran Use Suborbital Launches to Develop New Boosters

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 11, 2022
Launch of Blue Whale 0.1 rocket. (Credit: Perigee Aerospace)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Companies and government agencies in China, South Korea and Iran have launched a total of 10 suborbital rockets to support the development of multiple new launch vehicles during the first eight months of 2022.

A Chinese company launched a reusable suborbital vehicle that took off vertically and landed horizontally at an airport. Another Chinese company conducted a series of launches to support the development of a reusable suborbital space tourism vehicle.

There were two suborbital launches of future orbital boosters in South Korea. Iran also conducted a suborbital test of an orbital rocket.

Germany tested materials for use in future reusable boosters. India launched an inflatable aerodynamic decelerator designed for recovering spent rocket stages and landing spacecraft on other worlds. North Korea tested an imaging system for a future reconnaissance satellite. Japan flew a scramjet engine. And NASA tested technology needed to study part of the atmosphere that disrupts radio communications.

Let’s take a closer look at who launched what from where and why.

Suborbital Launches Overview

A total of 16 out of 34 suborbital launches that were not focused on missile tests were focused on developing new launch vehicles and technologies. Fifteen launches succeeded and one failed.

Suborbital Launches for Launch Vehicle & Technology Development
(Excludes Weapons Tests)
January – Sept. 10, 2022

PurposeLaunch Vehicle(s)Launch SiteOrganizationPartner(s)Launches
Suborbital spaceplane & hypersonic transport vehicle developmentTianxing I, Tianxing IIJiuquan (China)Space Transportation (Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology)6
Reusable suborbital launch flight testReusable Suborbital CarrierJiuquan (China)China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC)1
Suborbital flight test of orbital boosterBlue Whale 0.1Jeju Island (South Korea)Perigee AerospaceSouth Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology1
Suborbital flight test of orbital boosterSolid-fuel Space ProjectileJackup sea installation (South Korea)South Korea Ministry of National Defense1
Suborbital flight test of orbital booster ZulijanahSemnan (Iran)Iranian Space Agency1
Reusable launch vehicle technology testVSB-30 Improved OrionAndoya (Norway)German Aerospace Center (DLR)Technical University of Munich, University of Arizona1
Inflatable Aerodynamic DeceleratorRH-300 Mk IIThumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (India)Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)1
Reconnaissance satellite imaging system testHwasong-17Sunan (North Korea)KPA Strategic Rocket Force (North Korea)National Aerospace Development Administration1
Supersonic combustion flight testS-520Uchinoura (Japan)Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)1
Sporadic-E Electro Dynamics Demonstration mission (SpEED Demon) technology demonstrationTerrier-improved MalemuteWallops (USA)NASAEmbry-Riddle Aeronautical University1
Technology demonstrationDARTKoonibba Test Range (Australia)T-Minus EngineeringAscension1*
Source: Wikipedia and original research
* Launch failure

Seven launches were conducted in China, two in South Korea, and one apiece in Australia, India, Iran, Japan, North Korea, Norway, and the United States.

China’s Reusable Suborbital Rocket and Tourism Programs

On August 26, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) launched the Reusable Suborbital Carrier from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The vehicle flew a suborbital trajectory before landing horizontally on the runway at the Alxa Youqi Airport in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

CASC said the second launch of the reusable carrier was a complete success. A successful maiden flight was conducted on July 16, 2021.

CASC has released very little information about its suborbital vehicle, which is believed to have a lifting body shape to allow it to glide to a runway landing.

Tianxing hypersonic vehicle (Credit: Space Transportation)

Space and Hypersonic Programs

Space Transportation, a.k.a., Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology, said on its website that it conducted six test flights this year as part of its Tianxing program. The launches were split evenly between Tianxing I and Tianxing II rockets.

Space Transportation’s goal is to develop a suborbital spaceplane capable of carrying tourists and microgravity experiments on suborbital flights. A later variant would be a high-speed transport that would fly between distant locations on Earth in less than two hours. The image below shows the evolution of the planned test vehicles.

Tianxing suborbital spaceplane and hypersonic transport vehicle development plan. (Credit: Space Transportation)

The company released very little information about the six launches it conducted this year. It’s not even clear where the flights took place, although Wikipedia indicates they might have been conducted from the Jiuquan spaceport.

Space Transportation has published the following development schedule:

2019-2022: technology verifications through flight tests;
2023: flight test of suborbital space tourism prototype;
2025: crewed flight of space tourism vehicle;
2028: flight test of global hypersonic vehicle prototype; and
2030: completion of full-scale global hypersonic vehicle.

Tianxing hypersonic vehicle flight profile. (Credit: Space Transportation)

Space Transportation has raised $60.6 million in three funding rounds. The company announced a Series A round in August 2021 that totaled $46.3 million. Matrix Partners China and Shanghai Guosheng Group led the round with new investors Wuyuefeng Capital, Xiamen Feiyu Yinghang and Shanghai Huygens.

Previous investors Source Code Capital, Volcanic Stone Capital, Keke Li Venture Capital, Yuanhe Yuandian, and Zhencheng Investment also contributed to the Series A round. The five investors were part of a $14.3 million seed round that was announced in December 2019.

Source Capital led an angel round that was announced in March 2019.

Dueling Rocket Launches on the Korean Peninsula

Launch of Blue Whale 0.1 rocket. (Credit: Perigee Aerospace)

The divided Korean peninsula saw three suborbital launches as both North and South Korea sought to develop technologies needed for orbital launches.

On Feb. 26, the North Korea People’s Army Strategic Force launched the two-stage Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missiles from Sunan. The flight’s purpose was to test an imaging system for use on a future reconnaissance satellite. The payload reached an apogee of about 620 km (385.25 miles).

Four weeks later on March 24, South Korean startup Perigee Aerospace conducted the third flight test of its Blue Whale 0.1 booster from Jeju Island.

The suborbital rocket tested technology for Blue Whale 1, a two-stage orbital booster powered by liquid oxygen and liquid natural gas. The booster will be capable of orbiting satellites weighing 40 kg (88.2 lb) into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high sun synchronous orbit, or 50 kg (110.2 lb) into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high low Earth orbit. Launches are planned from Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in Australia.

South Korea’s solid-fuel space projectile launches on a flight test on March 30, 2022 (Credit: South Korea Ministry of National Defense)

Perigee has received investment from Samsung Venture Investments and LB Investment. The company has also received support from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, which is a national research institute.

Six days after Perigee’s launch, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense launched the Solid Fuel Space Projectile with a dummy payload on a suborbital flight. The launch was part of a development program aimed at producing a booster capable of launching 500 kg (1,102.3 lb) satellites into orbit. The first orbital flight is scheduled for around 2024.

Iran Develops a New Booster

Zuljanah launch vehicle. ( Credit: tasnimnews)

On June 26, Iran launched its new Zulianah satellite booster on a successful suborbital flight test for the second time. The launch was conducted from the Semnan Space Center in Northern Iran.

Zulianah is a three-stage launch vehicle designed to place a spacecraft weighing 220 kg (485 lb) or ten 20 kg (44.1 lb) CubeSats into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high orbit. The booster specifications are:

Length: 25.5 meters (83.7 ft)
Mass: 52 tons (114,640 lb)

First & Second Stages
Motor Diameter: 1.5 meter (4.9 ft)
Fuel: solid
Thrust: 74 tons (725 kN; 163,000 lbf)

Third Stage
Engine Diameter: 1.25 meter (4.1 feet)
Fuels: liquid (UDMH /N2O4)
Thrust: 3.5 tons (35 kN; 7,800 lbf)

Zulijanah is Iran’s third domestically developed launch vehicle; the other two are named Safir and Simorgh. It is the nation’s first satellite launcher to use a combination of solid- and liquid-fuel stages.

Zulijanah’s previous suborbital flight test was conducted on Jan. 31, 2021. Two additional additional test launches are planned.

Zulijanah can be driven to a location and launched using a transporter-erector system with limited preparation. U.S. and European analysts have expressed concerns that Iran might be using the program as a cover to develop an intermediate range ballistic missile.

Germany Tests Reusable Rocket Technology

Launch of the STORT flight experiment aboard a VSB-30 Improved Orion sounding rocket. [Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)]

The success of SpaceX has led Europeans to rethink their strategy for developing new boosters. Of particular interest are launch vehicles that could be reused multiple times like the first stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters.

On June 26, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) launched the STORT mission aboard a three-stage VSB-30 Improved-Orion rocket from the Andoya Space rocket range in Norway. STORT is a German acronym that translates into “key technologies for high-energetic return flights of reusable launcher stages.”

The flight’s objective was to simulate the temperatures and loads that a booster would experience during reentry. The rocket’s third stage was fitted with five ceramic segments that were accelerated to a velocity of around 9,000 km/h (5.592 mph), which is in excess of Mach 8. Measurements were taken by heat flow sensors, thermocouples and pressure sensors attached to the rocket.

The Technical University of Munich constructed the carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers module used on the flight. The University of Arizona performed simulations for the flight experiment. DLR’s Mobile Rocket Base department was responsible for planning and executing the mission.

A sounding rocket launches the Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator. (Credit: ISRO)

India Tests Inflatable Decelerator

On Sept. 3, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched an inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (IAD) aboard a RH-300 Mk II sounding rocket from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station.

Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (Credit: ISRO)

The folded IAD separated from the the booster and inflated at an altitude of 84 km (52.2 miles). The decelerator then descended with the payload bay of the rocket.

“The IAD has systematically reduced the velocity of the payload through aerodynamic drag and followed the predicted trajectory. This is first time that an IAD is designed specifically for spent stage recovery. All the objectives of the mission were successfully demonstrated,” ISRO said in a press release.

Designed and developed by Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), the IAD is intended for use in recovering spent rocket stages. It can also be used to land spacecraft on other worlds.

“This demonstration opens a gateway for cost effective spent stage recovery using the Inflatable Aerodynamics Decelerator technology and this IAD technology can also be used in ISRO’s future missions to Venus and Mars,” said ISRO Chairman Shri S Somanath.

Japan Tests Scramjet Engine

An example of an aircraft equipped with an air-breathing engine. (Credit: JAXA)

On July 24, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) tested an air-breathing scramjet engine capable of accelerating a vehicle to five or six times the speed of sound. The experiment was launched by a S-520 sounding rocket from the Uchinoura Space Center.

JAXA aims to develop scramjets that can be incorporated into intercontinental high-speed transport aircraft and launch vehicles.

JAXA said the rocket reached a maximum altitude of 168 km (104.4 miles) at 3 minutes 26 minutes into the flight. The flight ended when the payload reached the ocean 6 minutes 52 seconds after liftoff from Uchinoura.

“After being launched by the 1st stage motor of the observation rocket S-520, the specimen is separated from the 1st stage motor, changes its attitude using the ramline control unit, and descends forward with the forward direction of the specimen,” JAXA said.

The scramjet engine test facility (left) and the engine (inside the dashed line). (Credit: JAXA)

“During descent, the test specimen reaches hypersonic speed (Mach number approximately 5.5), and data on aerodynamic heating generated outside the engine and supersonic combustion inside the engine are acquired. The acquired data is transmitted to the ground station by radio waves,” the space agency added. “When flying at hypersonic speed, the airflow at the inlet is hypersonic, but it is decelerated at the air intake port to increase the pressure (combustion pressure).”

A Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket launches the spEED-Demon experiment from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (Credit: NASA Wallops/Kyle Hoppes

Launch of the SpEED Demon

On Aug. 23, a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket launched the Sporadic-E Electro Dynamics Demonstration mission (SpEED Demon) technology demonstration mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. NASA launched the rocket in collaboration with the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The flight tested a suite of instruments designed to study the Sporadic E layer in the ionosphere, the electrified upper portion of Earth’s atmosphere that’s made of ionized gas called plasma. Sporadic-E layers on Earth can cause unpredictable disruptions to radio communications.

Sporadic-E ElectroDynamics Demonstration mission (Credit: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University)

“Sporadic-E layers are like patchy, invisible clouds of dense plasma that sometimes disrupt radio communications,” said Aroh Barjatya, SpEED Demon principal investigator and director of the Embry-Riddle’s Space and Atmospheric Instrumentation Lab.

“These layers are seen throughout the globe, with those at the Earth’s mid-latitudes increasing in abundance and activity during summer,” Barjatya added. “Having a complete understanding of them is necessary to model them accurately and predict their occurrence.”

The instrument package, which included new and heritage instruments already flown in space, will be improved based on the results of the flight. A follow-on launch is planned from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in summer 2024.

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