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UPDATED: October 13, 2010 NO. 36 SEPTEMBER 3, 1990
Progress in Carrier Rocket Technology

At 9:40 a.m., Beijing daylight savings time, on July 16, the Long March-2 cluster carrier, a newly developed high-capacity booster rocket, was successfully launched at the Xichang Launch Site in southwest China. The successful launch added new dimension to China's carrier rocket series and was an indicator of China's ability to launch heavy satellites. It marked a new stage for China's carrier rocket technology.

Long March series

Before that successful launch, China's astronautics industry had already developed the rocket series of Long March 1, Long March 2, Long March 3 and Long March 4. Since April 1970, with the Long March serial rockets, China has successfully launched 27 communications and retrievable remote sensing satellites.

The Long March 1 rocket was the first to send Dongfanghong 1 satellite into space, the prelude to China's activities in outer space. The rocket has a length of 29.45 metres, a maximum diameter of 2.25 metres, a take-off weight of 81.6 tons and a useful load of 300 kg. The rocket has successfully launched two satellites.

In 1975, the Long March 2 rocket was formally put into service. A two-stage liquid rocket, the Long March 2 rocket has a length of 35 metres, a maximum diameter of 3.35 metres and a weight of 191 tons. It is capable of sending a 2.5-ton payload into near-earth orbit 200-400 km high. The Long March 2 used a tri-axial, stable square and digital computer and a rocking engine to provide thrust vector control for the first time. The Long March 2 has successfully launched 11 retrievable remote sensing satellites since 1975.

The Long March 3 is a three-stage rocket, the first and second stage boosters of which were improved on the basis of China's long-distance carrier rocket. Its third stage booster adopted the crucial rocket technology of hydro-oxygen and hydro-hydrogen, high-energy, low-temperature fuel rocket now being used by only a few countries. Chinese scientists mastered the technique by which a three-stage rocket can be started twice under zero gravity of space and a high vacuum. This marked a breakthrough in overcoming the orbit control difficulties previously faced when launching earth stationary orbit satellite at a place far removed from the equator. The Long March-3 rocket has a length of 43.25 metres, a maximum diameter of 3.35 metres, a take-off weight of 202 tons and a take-off thrust of 280 tons. Capable of sending a 1.4-ton payload into earth stationary orbit 36,000 km high over the equator, the Long March-3 has proven to be of good quality and high reliability. So far, China has launched seven such rockets. Except for the first, because of a failure in the secondary ignition of the three-stage rocket engine which prevented the satellite from entering into transfer orbit, the remaining six launches were all successful. Overall, the launch rate has been 93 percent successful, a rate better than that found in carrier rockets abroad.

In September 1989, the Long March 4 rocket successfully launched China's first experimental meteorological satellite - Fengyun 1 - at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre. The Long March 4 is a multipurpose, constant-temperature fuel three-stage rocket. With a total length of 41.9 metres, a maximum diameter of 3.35 metres and a take-off thrust of 300 tons, it is capable of placing a 1.5-ton payload into a 900-km-high orbit synchronous with the sun and a 3.8-ton payload into a round orbit 400 km high at a dip angle of 70 degree. The Long March 4 rocket uses relatively advanced technology for the power system, guidance and stabilization and surveying system. It is suitable for different satellite launch sites and launching different types of applied satellites and scientific and technological experimental satellites into different orbits.

The successful development of the above rockets placed China among the ranks of those countries with the ability to launch satellites into near-earth orbit and simultaneous synchronous sun and earth static orbit.

Cluster rocket

The development of Long March 2 cluster rocket was approved by the State Council Work Conference chaired by Premier Li Peng on December 14, 1988. It was designed on the basis of Long March 2 by lengthening the first stage by 4.6 metres and the second stage by 5.2 metres. The first stage rocket had four boosters 2.25 metres in diameter and 15 metres in height. Both the upper stage and the payload are installed in a cowling 4.2 metres in diameter and 10.5 metres in height. The rocket has a length of 51 metres, a take-off weight of 464 tons and a take-off thrust of 600 tons. It is capable of taking an 8.8-ton payload into near-earth orbit 200-400 km high.

Similar to using an aircraft to launch a satellite, the Long March 2 cluster rocket first pushes the upper stage rocket and satellite to the near-earth orbit where it then ignites the upper stage rocket and, in a "relay," sends the 2.5-3.2-ton heavy communications satellite to the geosynchronous transfer orbit 36,000 km high. If a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen is used for the upper stage, it is capable of pushing a 4.5-ton satellite to the geosynchronous transfer orbit. The July 16 launch was a test conducted according to the requirements specified in a contract signed between the China Great Wall Industry Corp. and the Hughes Aircraft Co. of the United States for the launching of two large Australian communications satellites in 1991 and 1992. During the test, a simulation satellite of Aussat-B and a Pakistan scientific experimental satellite with a total mass of 7.4 tons were sent into the space.

The successful launch marked a major progress in China's carrier rocket technology and launch facilities. Improved as it was on the basis of Long March 2, the rocket used new technology in the five major system areas - power, remote survey, outer survey, structure and control. It solved a series of major technological problems in parallel structural mechanism, reduced propellant residue, and improved engine function, heavy satellite cowling, heavy ground launch pad and a full rocket vibration tower. New structures, new materials and new technology were also developed, thereby opening up an effective way for China to develop still more powerful carrier rockets and to launch heavy space crafts cheaper and more quickly.

New alternative

Along with the world's economic and cultural development, more and more countries have begun developing their own space technology. Now, more than 20 countries have designed different types of aerospace crafts and over 170 countries and regions use satellite technology. With a considerable number of satellites waiting to be launched every year, the international commercial satellite launch market is very brisk.

Most of the satellites requiring a launch, however, are new generation satellites. Their weight generally ranges between 2.5-3.5 tons; those weighing less than 2.5 tons are very few. The few rocket models developed by China originally thus could not meet either international or domestic needs. The successful development of the Long March 2 cluster rocket provides a new option for the international commercial satellite-launching market.

In 1985, the Chinese Government announced the Long March serial carrier rockets entered the international commercial satellite-launching service market.

In 1987 and 1988, Chinese retrievable satellites launched by Long March 2 provided services for France and the Federal Republic of Germany in microgravity tests.

In November 1987, China signed a contract with the Swedish Space Co. to carry and launch postal satellites.

In November 1988, China signed a contract with the Hughes Aircraft Co. of the United States to launch two Australian communications satellites manufactured by the US company.

In January 1989, China signed a contract with the Asian Satellite Co. to launch the Asia 1 communications satellite. This was successfully launched on April 7 of this year.

In January 1990, the China Great Wall Industry Corp. won a bid to launch a communications satellite for the Arab Satellite Organization.

Since 1985, China has used the Long March serial rockets to launch ten of its own satellites, far more than the number launched by the corporation for foreign countries in the past and more is expected in the future. This supports the Chinese government position reiterated on many occasions: China's development of carrier rocket technology is primarily intended at meeting its domestic modernization needs, and, at the same time, if it has surplus capability, to provide commercial services for the world market. China will thus join its foreign counterparts to actively develop outer space for the benefit of mankind.

After the successful launch of the Asia 1 satellite, Liu Jiyuan, vice minister of aeronautics and astronautics industry, said that China's launch service is intended as a useful supplement to the international launch market and that it won't become a rival to European and American rocket manufacturing companies, much less become a threat to them. He noted that China's carrier rocket production capacity and launch facilities are limited and that the purpose of the service is to provide a greater range of options for customers.

Why the low price

Some foreigners worry that China's launch service for foreign countries will be at the expense of other countries by forcing down prices. It is true that the prices and terms for launch services which were agreed upon between the China Great Wall Industry Corp. and various clients are a better deal than offered elsewhere. This is because China's carrier rockets are practical and reliable, have a high rate of success and use all domestically made materials and components. In addition, China's labour cost is low.

Of course, the China Great Wall Industry Corp.'s quoted price won't be lower than its actual cost and the government, moreover, won't subsidize the corporation. After the successful launch of the Long March 2 cluster rocket, Chen Shouchun, vice president of the China Great Wall Industry Corp., said that his company assumed sole financial responsibility for profits and losses and that the company's quoted price was based on cost plus reasonable profits.

"All the costs for the manufacture of the Long March 2 cluster rocket," he said, "came from the commercial loans provided by the Scientific and Technological Service Co. under the People's Bank of China; we received neither loans nor subsidies from the government."

Since the rocket was developed and assembled in only 18 months, compared with three to four years in Western countries, there was also a substantial reduction in costs.

Chen added that the price for the launch of a communications satellite is generally quoted to include the entry of the satellite into the geosynchronous transfer orbit.

The Long March 2 cluster rocket, however, was sent into orbit in two stages: first, sending the satellite together with the perigee rocket into a near-earth orbit; second, using the foreign perigee rocket to send the satellite from near-earth orbit into the synchronous transfer orbit. The former's quoted price originates with the Great Wall Industry Corp, the latter's quoted price with foreign company. Together, the two add up to an overall price. Some foreign concerns mistook China's quoted price as the total for the entire launch service, making it appear that the price of the Great Wall Industry Corp. was dramatically low.

In short, China's guidelines and policies on launch services for foreign countries are consistent, open and aboveboard. These policies not only benefit China, but also facilitate the advancement of world space technology.

The author is a staff member of the Ministry of Aeronautics and Astronautics Industry

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