China’s Long March 11 carrier rockets, designed to take a 700-kilogram payload to low-Earth orbit, will be deployed for the country’s first sea launch this year, rocket developer China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation confirmed this week.
The medium-sized rocket, which had its maiden mission in 2015, is primarily designed to deliver low-inclination satellites into orbit for commercial customers.
It’s common sense that launching satellites from locations on and around the Equator creates a shortcut for a rocket to “hitch a ride” on the centrifugal force of the Earth’s rotation, at an equatorial speed of 1,674.4km/h in prograde motion, to reduce fuel consumption or accommodate a heavier payload.
China has to look to the high seas in the equatorial region, since its own territory is far north of the Equator. Its southernmost spaceport, the Wenchang launch center on Hainan island, is some 2,000km north of the Equator, at a latitude of 19 degrees north.
Observers say the South China Sea, particularly waters surrounding the disputed Spratly Islands off the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, could serve as a new maritime launch pad for Chinese rockets.
China’s dredging and reclaiming of islets and atolls there, such as Mischief Reef and Subi Reef that have been gaining in size on a daily basis in a frantic island-building drive, could be ready-to-hand replenishment points for such offshore launches.
However, such launches could touch a nerve in neighboring countries already in conflict with China over clashing territorial claims in these waters, though the animosity has subsided somewhat since last year as Beijing has sought to mollify Manila and Kuala Lumpur.
Technology-wise, any trial offshore launch has to take into consideration logistical constraints as well as sea turbulence and heat flow, and the rockets will be launched atop semi-submersible vessel-like platforms, according to Xinhua.
The United States, Russia, Ukraine and Norway have all invested in sea-launch bases, yet none has yet catapulted a satellite into orbit from the sea.