Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology, better known as i-Space, was the first private Chinese space company to launch an orbital launch. On July 25, two small satellites launched into space on a Hyperbola-1 rocket – they were launched into orbit 300 km high.
Attempts to do this have been undertaken by private rocket companies from the Celestial Empire before: in October 2018, LandSpace tried to reach the orbit, and in March 2019 OneSpace failed. But the race between Chinese companies is just beginning: now these manufacturers are striving to complete the development of a medium-class liquid-rocket-powered carrier rocket as quickly as possible. For a solid propellant propulsion system of course gives a ticket to space, but the key to conquering the market is a rocket engine.
Many private Chinese space companies are developing rocket engines. But LandSpace here stands apart – it is in many ways a breakthrough company. She was the first among Chinese private companies to develop her own launch vehicle. The first attempted orbital launch. It is also the first to sign launch contracts with representatives of other countries.
On May 17, LandSpace announced that their 785 kN TQ-12 oxygen-methane engine had passed successful full-scale fire tests. In the week before this announcement, a series of short-term ignitions was carried out, the longest of which was 20 seconds. LandSpace also released photos and videos demonstrating TQ-12 testing on a test bench.
According to LandSpace, the TQ-12 is one of the best methane rocket engines in the world. It is only surpassed by the SpaceX Raptor engine and the Blue Origin BE-4 engine. The company claims that at the moment its thrust in the atmosphere is 657 kN, and in vacuum – 745 kN. The vacuum thrust LandSpace seeks is 785 kN or 80 ton-forces.
The project to create this methane engine started in 2017 with a test of the combustion chamber and gas generator, which produced 10 tons of thrust. But LandSpace quickly switched to a more powerful option: in September 2018 and January 2019, new, larger combustion chambers and a gas generator were tested. The development went quite quickly: first trial trials in March of this year, then full ones, already mentioned above.
These tests were the next key moment after the launch of the ZQ-1 rocket last year. And very big news for the Chinese space sector (which did not prevent the TQ-12 news from drowning in the stream of information about Huawei ban in the USA – although the news scattered quite quickly among space lovers). “80 tons-force, full-blown, 20 seconds, world-class,” LandSpace founder and CEO Changu Zhang shared the WeChat test report as fast as he could.
LandSpace is often called the Chinese version of SpaceX. In recent years, a large number of private space companies have appeared in China, but all of them are small enterprises that are at an early stage of their development. LandSpace is no exception. Although it is too early to compare them directly with SpaceX, nothing prevents predicting the future. The company Ilona Mask in the early stages of its development also did not produce any serious missiles. A tour of the Huizhou LandSpace manufacturing facility shows that LandSpace is very similar to SpaceX in its early years: the same dream and passion, failure and success.
Base in Huzhou
The authors of the original article have been following the development of LandSpace since its inception in 2016. In October 2018, one of them (Chen Lan) was at the Jiuquan cosmodrome, where he observed the launch of the ZQ-1 rocket. There, LandSpace employees talked about their newly built production base in Huzhou near Shanghai (LandSpace headquarters and its research and development team are based in Beijing). At that time the idea was born to visit the enterprise. At the end of March this year, the second of the authors of the article, Jacqueline Mirra, arrived in Shanghai. LandSpace co-founder Dr. Shufan Wu gave the go-ahead to visiting the base. So this material appeared.
The base is located on the road in the west of Huzhou. A fairly large industrial park is being created there, which provides high-tech companies with the conditions for doing business.
The first thing that strikes upon arrival at the LandSpace campus is the huge building, shining with blue light. That’s what you do not expect from such a small company! Mr. Chen and Jacqueline were accompanied by Mr. Du, the manager of the base in Huzhou. He slowly, not paying any attention to the rain, informed journalists about the creation of this complex and the latest news.
The interior of the building is huge! It has an area of 30,000 square meters. And, unfortunately, it’s empty for now. The only space-related equipment is the ZQ-1 solid-fuel rocket mockup and launch pad, which went through the October launch of last year. The building itself in the future will be divided into several sections, each of which will be designed for a specific purpose: assembling the engine, manufacturing fuel tanks, assembling and testing the rocket, etc. At the moment, only the development of the engine is underway in the complex. Also, rooms with low partitions were noticed, which in the future will become offices, conference rooms, workshops, laboratories and test rooms. The entire LandSpace team will work under one roof.
Du made a well-prepared presentation about the company, the Huzhou facility and LandSpace products. He is the engineer to whom you would have given your car for repair without a shadow of doubt. He has the charisma of a calm person, he speaks calmly, and his arguments are convincing. Prior to moving to Huzhou, he worked at the Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology (CASC 6th Academy) in Xi’an and was an expert in engine manufacturing. He joined LandSpace as head of the engine development and factory construction teams. He is also responsible for the construction of a test bench 20 kilometers from it.
Construction work began in March 2018, and in August of the same year, the stand was put into operation. When asked about the opportunity to visit this booth, Du replied that this was not possible at the moment because he was preparing for the full-scale TQ-12 fire test in June (in fact, the fire test went ahead of schedule – a rare occurrence for the rocket industry!). He offered to visit him next time.
On July 5, 2018, LandSpace announced its overall strategy and planned developments at a major event at the Beijing National Swimming Complex. There, for the first time, the ZQ-2 rocket with liquid rocket engines, on which the company relies, was mentioned.
Zhuque 2 (ZQ-2, Zhuque-2) – a middle class rocket. It will have a starting weight of 216 tons, 48.8 meters in length and 3.35 meters in diameter. The first stage will be equipped with four Tianque-12 oxygen-methane engines (TQ-12, Tianquee-12). The second stage will be equipped with the same engine, but the vacuum version, as well as the shunting TQ-11 with a thrust of 78 kN. The rocket will be able to deliver 1.8 tons of payload to a 500-kilometer solar-synchronous orbit, and it will be able to send as much as 4 tons of cargo to a low Earth orbit of 200 kilometers high.
The ZQ-2 will have three modifications: ZQ-2A, ZQ-2B and ZQ-2C. They will differ from the main missile in their length (55.7 meters), and the last two will have additional first-stage boosters: the ZQ-2B will have a pair of boosters, and the ZQ-2C will have four. With these modifications, LandSpace will be able to launch 2.4, 6.7 and 14 tons into geostationary orbit, respectively.
LandSpace also has a two-stage space plan project that will be able to send 10 people to a space station or make a flight with hundreds of people from one point on the planet to another in one hour.
However, the current direction of the company, as well as the key to its ambitious plans, is precisely the methane engine. It is worth noting that even CASC (China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation) does not have much experience working with such installations. Although the 11th Institute of CALT (China Research Institute of Rocket Technology) once developed a prototype methane engine based on the already existing oxygen-hydrogen YF-77, but it was not used in practice.
Engine development is currently the most important activity at the base in Huzhou. To guarantee their success, LandSpace did not become wise – they took the classic open cycle as the basis. As a result – a vacuum specific impulse of 350 seconds. The newest SpaceX closed-cycle engine with full gasification of components – Raptor – has a target specific vacuum of 380 seconds.
Since there are no places in China where it was possible to launch a rocket with a methane engine, the question arises: where will the ZQ-2 start from? Du noted that the issue of using the existing launch pad to create suitable infrastructure on it is already being discussed with the Chinese authorities. He is sure that no problems will arise with this.
After visiting the conference room, Du showed Chen and Jacqueline other objects: a room for testing components, a stand for hydrodynamic tests, and also a large clean room in which the TQ-12 engine was in the process of disassembling.
In a huge hall, which could easily accommodate the production line, engineers counted the screws, sorted the bolts and examined the engine parts – two small groups of people stood around small tables and were very focused on their work. They did not interrupt their work and did not pay attention to curious visitors. One group involved in the engine case was led by a senior engineer who was assisted by young specialists. Another group that sorted fasteners consisted of young and middle-aged engineers. They completely devoted themselves to work and worked hard to complete it.
The complex in Huzhou is entering the second phase of construction. According to Du, once it is completed, it will be possible to produce 200 engines and 15 missiles per year at the base.
The right time, the right place and the right people
The progress of the complex in Huzhou and LandSpace itself is impressive. Just a few years ago, it seemed inconceivable that private companies could appear in China to engage in space technology. In fact, this is the result of China’s new policy in recent years (not without pressure from SpaceX Ilon Mask, of course). As one Chinese proverb says: the right place, the right time, and the right people. LandSpace is one of the first space startups in China. And this company takes advantage of its position. Well: time is right.
Huzhou City Government has allocated 200 million yuan ($27.9 million) to support LandSpace’s rocket and engine production plan. The city also provided LandSpace with free land and premises rental. And soon he will build for Landspace an office building and a free-use dining room. Zhejiang Province, where the city of Huzhou is located, as well as the neighboring Shanghai, belong to China’s most developed economic zone with a supply chain in the manufacturing industry, which will largely support the LandSpace production base. The company did not lose the place either.
However, Huzhou is a small (by Chinese standards) city. The population is 3 million people. It has only a couple of colleges and not many high-tech companies. Fortunately, the city is rich in workers in the technical industry and has a good policy of attracting specialists from other places. At HuShou LandSpace, most of the employees are from Beijing or Xian. And most of them worked at national space enterprises. They are young and highly qualified. According to Du, approximately 10% of employees are highly qualified women.
Mostly they come to a small city in pursuit of a dream. Du is one such person. Being one of the oldest in the company, he acknowledged that joining it is an adventure, and he is very optimistic about LandSpace and the new wave of Chinese space startups. He noted that he liked the combination of young and old engineers in the team, and also emphasized that his intention was to transfer the experience to the rocket scientists of the future. There was no opportunity to talk with youth at the base – they were all busy with their own business. But what they have achieved clearly makes clear: these are the right people.
It does not seem that last year’s failure somehow affected the mood in the company. Less than a month after the launch, LandSpace received funding of 300 million yuan ($41.8 million) as part of the B + series investment round. From now on, the company’s attention is focused on the ZQ-2. Although Du does not exclude the possibility of restarting the ZQ-1, if such a launch is necessary.
LandSpace is definitely China’s leading private-propelled liquid rocket engine company. And she is closest to the development of a middle class launch vehicle. In addition, LandSpace has signed an agreement with the British company Open Cosmos and the Italian company D-Orbit to launch cubsat. The amount under the agreement was 100 million yuan (13.9 million US dollars).
LandSpace is planning the first launch of the ZQ-2 at the end of 2020. So far, everything is going smoothly. However, the development of this rocket is a big challenge for the company. She has a long way to go to at least repeat the achievements of SpaceX.
Cosmic passions are heating up
LandSpace began the race among Chinese private rocket builders with the launch of the ZQ-1 in October 2018. OneSpace supported it by trying to launch an OS-M solid propellant rocket in March of this year (when Chen Lan and Jacqueline Mirra collected material for this article). But the winner of the race was i-Space with its Hyperbola-1. Who will win in the second round?
The above companies are not the only ones participating in this race. Galactic Energy, LinkSpace, Deep Blue Aerospace, Space Trek, JZYJ and other companies are also developing their engines and rockets. Most begin with solid-fuel rockets, but everyone has plans for a rocket engine.
i-Space is developing a 15-ton thrust JD-1 methane engine, tests of the gas generator and turbopump of which have already been completed:
Galactic Energy is currently developing a solid propellant accelerator with a high thrust index, as well as an oxygen-kerosene engine with a thrust of 40 tons-forces for its future Pallas-1 rocket, which is in the same class as the ZQ-2:
In July, JZYJ tested its 10 ton-force Lingyun methane engine (Lingyun):
But LinkSpace has a different path – they focus on a reusable rocket with vertical take-off and landing. On August 10, they conducted a successful hopping test of their prototype RLV-T5. The test lasted 50 seconds, and the lifting height was 300 meters. On the same day, an agreement was signed with JZYJ to use the Lingyun engine to work on a larger prototype, the T6.
The race is heating up not only in China, but also beyond. LandSpace, with its fellow competitors, as one argues that the possibility of reusable missiles was originally laid down in their plans. It is possible that in a few years SpaceX will feel some pressure from the newcomers – when their technologies become more mature, this will undoubtedly happen.
But if you look even wider, then this race is part of a kind of confrontation between the United States and China. Unfortunately, the Sino-US trade war is currently turning into a technical war, which could forever change the world order. This will deeply affect China’s policies and accelerate the internal development of its independent technologies. What will the upcoming race bring? We really hope for a win-win game and mutually beneficial competition. Not conflict or even war.