China's test fires a Long March 5 carrier rocket earlier this year. Soon it will launch its first reusable rocket. Photo: AFP
China's test fires a Long March 5 carrier rocket earlier this year. Soon it will launch its first reusable rocket. Photo: AFP

US$5,000 per kilogram is the latest price quoted by a China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC) official – at a forum last week – for sending satellites into a low geosynchronous orbit in the near future, China Space News has reported.

The current lowest price is double that amount. China mainly uses its indigenous Kuaizhou (meaning “speedy vessel” in Mandarin) quick-reaction launch vehicle, which reportedly consists of four solid and liquid-fueled rocket stages.

Currently, the Kuaizhou is China’s most economical rocket for commercial launches, with an average net price of around US$10,000 per kilogram. Photo: CASC

By comparison, the low launch prices offered by SpaceX, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s private space transport and technology company, is less than $2,500 per pound, or roughly $5,500 per kg, to orbit using its Falcon 9 rockets.

A still from a program on China’s budget, reusable rockets on the state broadcaster CCTV.

Beijing’s mandate to wrestle more market share in commercial space launches from overseas competitors has apparently buoyed up the resale of the CASC and other state-owned space enterprises in price undercutting, and to do so the nation needs economical yet powerful reusable rockets that can work like space cargo shuttles.

A senior technician from the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology told Xinhua that things were shaping-up well for China’s first reusable rocket series and the ultimate goal was to slash unit-costs to a tenth of the conventional, one-time-only rockets.

He noted that the academy was likely to surmount the technical hurdles in a year or two, as his team was busy producing prototypes for computerised and simulated tests.

How a reusable rocket works

When a rocket climbs to a certain altitude – the Kármán line for instance, the 100-kilometer boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space – having separated from the payload fairing, the first stage turns itself over by 180 degrees to an “upside -down” position, and then starts another set of engines installed at the top for reverse thrust to reduce speed and thus frictional heating, when the first stage re-enters the atmosphere for landing.

Currently, the Chinese Government and the CASC, a manufacturer of both the Kuaizhou as well as its Long March rockets, have agreed to keep communication satellite launch prices at a lump sum of $70 million, provided the payload is within the rocket’s optimal weight limits.

Pricing for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is approximately $15 million less than a launch on a Chinese rocket, according to Aviation Week.

With a published price of $56.5 million per launch to a low Earth orbit, “Falcon 9 rockets [were] already the cheapest in the industry,” the magazine said.

And, the payload of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket is 13.1 tons, higher than that of China’s Long March 3B (1.2 tons), currently the most powerful member of the nation’s rocket family.

SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell has said publicly that if they are successful in developing the reusable technology, launch prices in the $5 million range for the reusable Falcon 9 are possible in the longer term.

Elon Musk during a recent low-profile trip to China. Source: Xinhua Twitter account
Elon Musk, left, during a low-profile trip to China in April, seen during a meeting with Deputy Premier Wang Yang. Source: Xinhua Twitter account.

Musk once revealed that overall fuel costs for a single launch were about $300,000 – almost negligible compared with the $60 million price tag for making such a rocket.

Future launches can be dramatically cheaper – even one-hundredth of the prevailing price levels – if the rockets can be reused after simple maintenance.

NASA did give a shot with its Space Shuttle program, a low Earth orbital spacecraft system designed to be partially reusable. Still, since spacecraft of this type rely on friction with the atmosphere to reduce speed for landing, expansive heat shielding materials are vital, and a Space Shuttle must undergo maintenance each time before its next mission.

All the budget-busting Space Shuttles were decommissioned in 2011.

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