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China’s satellite launches slow down but crewed spaceflight is ready for liftoff

The failure of China’s workhorse space rocket will likely have numerous knock-on effects, but the rockets that take humans to space are working fine.

The Long March 3B rocket.

China’s stated goal of conducting more than 40 orbital space launches across 2020 appears to have suffered a major setback with the failure of the country’s workhorse rocket, although the country’s crewed space program took a step forward.

China’s April 9 launch of an Indonesian satellite from Xichang in Sichuan Province failed to achieve orbit. The Long March 3B rocket and its payload made a spectacular reentry visible over the U.S. island territory of Guam. The failure also signaled that China’s 2020 launch plans have been brought back down to Earth. This came less than a month after the failed first launch of the Long March 7A, a rocket that could become China’s main vehicle for sending large communications satellites into orbit.

The April 9 loss of the mission will impact China’s space program in a number of ways. The Long March 3B is China’s main launch vehicle for launching communications and navigation satellites. It has been reliable until now: Since a disastrous first launch in 1996, the rocket has suffered just two partial failures (satellites inserted into lower-than-planned orbits) in its next 65 launches.

The launcher will now, however, be grounded until the issue that affected the third stage is isolated and addressed. This process is likely to take months, and could take longer, meaning a number of missions among the 40-plus launches planned for 2020 cannot take place. Other Chinese launch vehicles lack the stages and payload capacity to launch to geostationary orbits, which are needed for communications satellites. The country’s large, new-generation rockets are also unsuitable, with the Long March 7A similarly grounded, and the Long March 5 too large in terms of payload capacity to be economical for satellite launch.

The grounding of the Long March 3B also means a delay to the completion of the Beidou navigation and positioning system, which is China’s answer to America’s GPS. China had planned to launch the 35th active satellite — and 55th satellite overall — for the system in May. However, the majority of Beidou’s space-based infrastructure is already deployed, so the effect may not be serious.

The failure will also have commercial impacts. The China Great Wall Industry Corporation, a subsidiary of main Chinese space contractor China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), signed the deal for Palapa-N1, an Indonesian joint venture, in 2017. The satellite will likely need to be replaced, following an insurance claim. This will make Chinese launch services appear less attractive and raise insurance premiums.

CASC also travels with Chinese delegations abroad, offering deals to provide turnkey satellite solutions (including launch, satellite development, ground station support, and training) to countries as part of China’s diplomatic efforts. China has manufactured and launched satellites for a number of Asian, African, and South American countries and while occasional failures are an unavoidable part of space activities, China will need to continue to demonstrate overall reliability.

Crewed missions still flying

China resumed launch activity on May 5 with the launch of the first Long March 5B from Wenchang, Hainan island. The mission was a test flight to prove the launcher’s ability to lift manned missions (in 20-metric-ton modules) into low Earth orbit. The launcher was designed specifically for the Chinese Space Station (CSS), a project initiated in 1992. The successful Long March 5B launch means a prototype new-generation spacecraft is now in orbit to test crewed deep space travel and high-speed reentry capabilities.

So, while the recent failures will slow down China’s satellite launching program, major uncrewed missions to Mars and the Moon later are still on schedule for later this year, and we can expect to hear more from China about human spaceflight in the coming year.

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Andrew Jones

Andrew is a freelance space journalist based in Helsinki, Finland.

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