The Yuanzheng rocket upper stage spacecraft delivered two BeiDou navigation satellites into orbit in one launch atop a Long March rocket earlier this month. Photo: Xinhua

China will step up research into rocket upper stages in a bid to capture a share of the growing commercial market for carriers capable of putting small payloads into low and medium space orbits.

Wang Mingzhe, an upper stage designer at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) said the carriers were also expected to play an important part in future moon and Mars exploration, as well as orbital transfer and the clearing of space debris.

“The rocket upper stage family will have a new member, Yuanzheng-1S, serving launches for low and medium Earth orbit satellites,” he said. CALT operates under the umbrella of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

Multi-stage rockets use engines and propellants to give the carrier extra lift and deliver payloads to a range of orbits. The US and Russia are clear leaders with the technology, but in early February China’s Yuanzheng-1 upper stage simultaneously sent two BeiDou navigation satellites from the southwestern Xichang launch center into a medium Earth orbit more then 20,000 kilometres above the ground.

The Yuanzheng-1 and its two BeiDou navigation satellites are moved into launch position in February. Photo: WeChat/China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

The Yuanzheng (“odyssey”) series was launched in March 2015 with a more basic model that performed two ignitions and operated for 6.5 hours. Since than China has progressed to Yuanzheng-1A and Yuanzheng-2 rockets, which are capable of up to 20 engine restarts for even more complex separations to place payloads into orbits.

Launches of small payloads into low and medium orbits are the fastest-growing segment of the commercial space market. Chinese developers have come up with a streamlined version, the Yuanzheng-1S, that can accomplish the entire mission, from launch to separation and then putting a satellite into its orbit, within just one hour.

Yuanzheng-1S modules will be used to place commercial sensoring and surveying satellites into sun-synchronous orbits later this year after being lifted into space on Long March 2C carrier rockets.

The Yuanzheng series will also be assigned a key role in China’s ambitious moon and Mars explorations, which will require that  multiple satellites and modules be sent in one launch.