A file photo shows a Long March V rocket, so far the most powerful carrier rocket made by China to date, at the Wenchang spaceport in southern Hainan province. Photo: Xinhua

Major Chinese spaceports will have a hectic year as around 40 launches are planned by two state-owned contractors.  China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC) and China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp (CASIC) announced their plans for space exploration and commercial launches on Wednesday.

CASC will send 18 BeiDou-3 positioning satellites into orbit this year to complete China’s satellite navigation network, and expand its range to cover major Belt and Road Initiative countries.

This could signal an unprecedented pace of launches, the state-owned news agency Xinhua reported.

Still, all eyes will be on the launch of the Long March V, the most powerful heavy-lift rocket with a maximum payload capacity of 25 tons.

Measuring almost 60 meters in height and five meters in diameter, this space beast was earmarked to deliver key modules and supporting capsules for the next-generation Tiangong space station.

Yet it was hit by a rare setback in July, 2017 when one of the major propellers stalled 30 minutes after launch.

A Long March V rocket suffered technical problems in 2017. Photo: Reuters

Officials appear confident the problem has been ironed out for a launch later this year. This space workhorse will be crucial if China is to achieve its ultimate goal of launching and assembling a space station in the early 2020s.

Long March V will also propel the Chang’e-4 lunar exploration satellite, which is slated to land on the dark side of the Moon. One extra communication relaying satellite for Chang’e-4 will also be sent into space.

Another major launch in the next 12 months will involve China’s first seismic observation satellite Zhang Heng-1.

CASIC is hoping its nimble, low-cost cargo rockets from Kuaizhou will also eat into the market share of United States-based private firms SpaceX and Blue Origin. The Chinese company is also scheduled to send four commercial satellites into orbit.

Getting the costs right will be crucial. The Chinese government, along with CASC and CASIC, has agreed to keep communication satellite launch prices down to US$70 million, provided the payload is within the rocket’s optimal weight limits.

A price of $5,000-per-kilogram is the latest being quoted by CASC for sending objects into a low geosynchronous orbit in the near future.

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