China launches experimental spaceplane

China launched a new experimental reusable space vehicle on Thursday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center using a Long March-2F/T – Chang Zheng-2F/T – launch vehicle. Launch from the LC43/91 launch complex, under a veil of secrecy with no official launch photos or even a launch time disclosed.

Chinese media emitted a laconic report referring, that “the test spacecraft will be in orbit for a period of time before returning to the domestic scheduled landing site. During this period, it will carry out reusable technology verification as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.”

It was previously announced that the next launch of the LM-2F rocket would be the first major scientific research and experimental mission other than crewed spaceflight after Shenzhou-11, being the basis for the successful implementation of subsequent crewed spaceflight projects and a key to future aerospace technology.

The train with the various elements of the launcher departed the factory on February 29. It arrived at the train station before being transferred to the dedicated rail line to Jiuquan on March 2.

At this time, there are no NOTAMs published anticipating the return and landing.

Roots in Shenlong?

On December 11, 2007, the Chinese media published an interesting image of a winged spacecraft mounted on a wind of am H-6K bomber. This was the first public acknowledgment that China was trying to develop a reusable winged space system very similar to the X-37.

Codenamed ‘Project 863-706’, the Shenlong Project had at the time its first launch scheduled between 2006 and 2010. In fact, Shenlong was possibly a technology development program for the actual space-worthy vehicle.

Launch vehicle and launch site:

The new experimental spaceplane was launched by the Long March-2G/T3, a variant of the launch vehicle usually used for the crewed Shenzhou program.

This launch vehicle, developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, is different from the original ‘Shenjian’ (Devine Arrow) version developed from the Chang Zheng-2E launch vehicle.

That rocket, in turn, was based on the proven flight technology of the Chang Zheng-2C.

Conceptual design work on the CZ-2E launch vehicle began in 1986. The rocket entered into the world launch services market following a successful test flight in July 1990.

A substantial difference for this rocket is the absence of the launch escape tower, a more bulbous fairing and an improved separation sequence, with a more precise orbit insertion accuracy.
This is possible with the introduction of improved navigation systems and a complex guidance system that features real-time inputs to the rocket to orbit parameters and uses GPS data outside the measurement error correction parameters to achieve double redundancy. Also, more propellant is loaded on the boosters, thus increasing the firing time.

Like the CZ-2F/G, the CZ-2F/T version is a two-stage launch vehicle that uses four strap-on boosters during the first stage phase.

The overall length is 52.0 meters, with a 3.35-meter core stage and a maximum diameter of 8.45 meters. At launch, it has a 493,000 kg mass, capable of launching 8,600 kg cargos into a low Earth orbit.

For the CZ-2F launch vehicle, the LB-40 strap-on boosters have a length of 15.326 meters, a diameter of 2.25 meters, a gross mass of 40,750 kg and an empty mass of 3,000 kg.

Each booster is equipped with a fixed nozzle YF-20B engine that consumes UDMH/N2O4 developing 740.4 kN of sea lever thrust. Burn time is 127.26 seconds.

The L-180 first stage has a length of 28.465 meters, a diameter of 3.35 meters, a gross mass of 198,830 kg and an empty mass of 12,550 kg. It is equipped with a YF-21B engine pack that consists of four YF-20B engines that consume UDMH/N2O4 developing 2,961.6 kN of sea lever thrust. Its burn time is 160.00 seconds.

The L-90 second stage has a length of 14.223 meters, a diameter of 3.35 meters, a gross mass of 91,414 kg and an empty mass of 4,955 kg. It is equipped with a YF-24B engine pack that consists of one fixed nozzle YF-22B main motor with a swiveling vernier four YF-23B engines.

The engines consume UDMH/N2O4 developing 738.4 kN (main engine) and 47.07 kN (vernier) of vacuum thrust. Total burn time is 414.68 seconds (301.18 seconds burn time for the main engine).

With ignition taking place at the end of the usual countdown in Chinese, the rocket began its journey into the Jiuquan sky.

The separation of the four strap-on liquid boosters takes place at around 155 seconds into the flight. The separation was followed by a stabilization process four seconds later, with the first stage separating right after together with stage two ignition.

Fairing separation takes place around 3 minutes and 35 seconds into the flight. The second stage pushed the secretive cargo into orbit, ending its performance at 9 minutes and 42 seconds. Spacecraft separation came a few seconds later.

The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, in Ejin-Banner – a county in Alashan League of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region – was the first Chinese satellite launch center and is also known as the Shuang Cheng Tze launch center.

The site includes a Technical Centre, two Launch Complexes, Mission Command and Control Centre, Launch Control Centre, propellant fuelling systems, tracking and communication systems, gas supply systems, weather forecast systems, and logistic support systems.
Jiuquan was originally used to launch scientific and recoverable satellites into medium or low earth orbits at high inclinations. All Chinese crewed missions are launched from this site.

The LC-43 launch complex, also known as the South Launch Site (SLS), is equipped with two launch pads: 91 (901) and 94 (603). Launch Pad 91 is used for the crewed program for the launch of the Long March-2F launch vehicle (Shenzhou and Tiangong).

Launch Pad 94 is used for uncrewed orbital launches by the Long March-2C, Long March-2D and Long March-4C launch vehicles.

Other launch zones at the launch site are used for launching the Kuaizhou, the CZ-11 Chang Zheng-11 and commercial launch vehicles using solid rocket motors.

The first orbital launch took place on April 24, 1970 when the CZ-1 Chang Zheng-1 rocket launched the first Chinese satellite, the Dongfanghong-1 (04382 1970-034A).

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