China’s space launch activities are usually something of a riddle. Launches from remote launch sites come with little warning, or even sometimes none, sending civilian, science, and military satellites to a range of different orbits and destinations. The recent launch — and failure — of a new rocket from a new, coastal spaceport was much more public, but ultimately still tightly controlled.
China has used launch complexes deep inland at Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert, Taiyuan in Shanxi Province, and Xichang in Sichuan Province for decades. While many spaceports around the world are coastal, which means that spent rocket stages fall into the sea, during the Cold War, China decided to position its sites deep inland due to security concerns. This was intended to make potential preemptive strikes from the U.S. and Soviet Union on what were initially nuclear launch facilities more difficult. These remain military-run facilities with strictly limited access.
Sometimes the only clues that a launch is due come from a NOTAM, or “Notice to Airmen.” These detail airspace closures by time and area and can be used to deduce the upcoming launch of a particular type of rocket from a designated site (and, notably, where used-up stages of the rocket will fall). But sometimes these are not issued: The first notification of a launch having taken place may come from a Weibo user in Xichang exclaiming that they awoke to shaking windows (in Chinese) fearing an earthquake, only to realize the local satellite launch center was in action once more.
China’s most public launch site
The opening of the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the coast of Hainan Island in 2016 was something of an opening up. There are even a number of public viewing areas nearby. New-generation cryogenic Long March 5 and Long March 7 launch vehicles have launched from Wenchang with crowds around the coast and livestreams relaying the action.
On March 16, China launched the first Long March 7A, a rocket that could become the main vehicle for sending large communications satellites toward geostationary orbits, around 36,000 kilometers above Earth. In these orbits, satellites remain effectively fixed over a particular spot on Earth. The 7A is adapted from the Long March 7, which was designed to launch cargo spacecraft to the planned Chinese Space Station, which will orbit at around 390 kilometers up. An extra stage on the rocket provides the extra kick to get up into higher orbits.
Despite preparations and the launch taking place out in the open, there was still only vague state media reporting of an upcoming mission. Space enthusiasts thus provided the main updates, posting images (in Chinese) on social media showing the 60.13-meter-long Long March 7A being rolled out for a “wet dress rehearsal” — in which the rocket is fueled as part of testing — and again (in Chinese) for what would be the real launch on March 16. The payload was described only as “new technology verification satellite-6,” and likely a classified national security satellite.
With no NOTAMs issued, indications of launch times came from insiders who posted scraps of information to the internet. The expected launch time shifted as teams worked problems that often arise during countdowns, especially with a new rocket. A couple of livestreams (in Chinese) from Wenchang sprang up as the launch approached, only to be unceremoniously shut down ahead of liftoff.
A flight anomaly
When the 573-metric-ton rocket finally took off at 13:34 UTC (21:34 local time), spectators quickly posted images and footage on Weibo, providing a measure of insight into the event. But once the Long March 7A disappeared above the clouds, there was silence and waiting. Whispers emerged that a problem had occurred, but there was only official silence.
Launches to this kind of orbit are usually declared successful by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), a state-owned defense giant and main contractor for the space program, around an hour after a launch. That time came and went. Ninety minutes after the launch, a terse news release (in Chinese) from Xinhua confirmed that the flight had suffered an anomaly and the mission failed. A team would be formed to investigate and analyze the cause of the failure.
The news of the failure was delivered relatively quickly. The loss of the Gaofen-10 Earth observation satellite in 2016 went unacknowledged for days afterward. But the lack of information led to concerns that the loss of the first Long March 7A could impact major upcoming missions, notably a space station test launch, set for April, and the first independent Chinese mission to Mars in July.
This is due to the modularized nature of the new Long March 5, 6, and 7 launch vehicles, which share some common features. For example, if the engines that power the Long March 7A first stage had caused the launch to fail, it would require the grounding of the Long March 5, China’s largest rocket, and the postponement of the flagship missions mentioned above.
Amateur footage provided the first clues about what went wrong. At 38 seconds, the first stage, having done its job, separates, leaving the space launch vehicle lighter and ready for the second stage to fire up and take over. This takes place around 45 seconds in, but at 52 seconds, an apparent explosive event takes place and the launch is soon lost in darkness. A second-stage issue would probably be the best-case scenario, but it may take some time before we receive an official account, both because of the difficulty in isolating the causes of issues and the secretive nature of the Chinese space program.
Major missions still on track?
Indirect evidence indicates the major missions are proceeding, despite the failure (and the COVID-19 epidemic) adding weight to the second-stage failure theory. CASC has also issued updates (in Chinese) on the development progress of the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft to launch astronauts, possibly as soon as late 2021, and the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft, which relies on the standard Long March 7.
The Long March 7A will likely not be in action anytime soon, until the cause of the failure is identified and addressed. That is bad news for residents downrange of Xichang, in remote areas of Guizhou and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which regularly see spent stages from the Long March 3B fall in around towns and villages. The Long March 7A could complement and eventually replace the older Long March 3B and reduce such incidents. But for now, the 3B will continue its role as launch workhorse. Notices and evacuations ahead of a launch lessen the chances of injury, but the disruption and potential loss of property to falling space debris and its residual hypergolic and highly toxic propellant remain. In the longer run, an experiment in vertical launch, vertical takeoff capabilities with the new Long March 8, expected later this year, could help reduce debris and also be a step toward catching up with SpaceX and its reusable Falcon 9; a rocket that has revolutionized the launch market.
The launch failure, while expensive, problematic, and time consuming, seems like it will not seriously impact China’s space plans. The next action in Wenchang will be crucial, however. In mid- to late April, China will launch the first Long March 5B, which will be a test flight to prove its ability to lift 20-metric-ton modules into low Earth orbit for a planned Chinese Space Station, a major, multi-decade project that aims to bring China human spaceflight experience, science and engineering returns, international cooperation opportunities, and soft power payoffs. A failure of this mission will be impossible to hide, as China’s flagship human spaceflight plans would be hit with yet another serious delay.