China’s space program has made leaps and bounds in a relatively short period of time. However, it has come under criticism in recent years for certain “uncontrolled re-entry” (aka crashes). On several occasions, spent first stages have fallen back to Earth, posing a potential threat to populated areas and prompting backlash from NASA and ESA, who have claimed China is taking “unnecessary risks.” To mitigate the risk of spent first stages, China has developed a parachute system that can direct fallen rocket engines to designated landing zones.
According to the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), which developed the system, the system was successfully tested on a Long March-3B (CZ-3B) rocket on Friday, June 9. As they said in their statement, a review of the test data and an in situ analysis of the debris found that the parachute system helped reduce the landing pad’s range by 80%. This could help pave the way for future applications of parachute landing control technology that could enable controlled reentry, controlled recovery, and even reusability.
A Long March-2FT1 launch vehicle launches from the launch pad at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Credit: Xinhua/Wang Jianmin
The system was tested on a CZ-3B rocket that launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on May 17 and delivered a BeiDou-3 G4 navigation satellite into orbit. The system includes an electrical subsystem that has been optimized to reduce its volume and overall weight (30 kg; 66 lbs) to make it more practical. It is also designed to automatically deploy its parafoil at a specified height and return the booster to a specified landing site. The integration of this system with the CZ-3 and CZ-5 family of rockets is intended to give mission teams finer control over where spent rocket engines land and improve security around launch sites.
Remove all ads on Universe today
Join our Patreon for just $3!
Get the ad-free experience for life
These concerns are especially important given that most of China’s key launch sites are deep inland, making it harder to predict where spent launch vehicles will fall after sending payloads into orbit. In the United States, large launch facilities are mostly located in coastal areas such as Cape Canaveral (Florida), SpaceX Starport (Boca Chica, Texas), Wallops Flight Facility (Virginia) and Vanderburg Air Force Base (California) or remote areas such as the New Zealand desert Mexico (Spaceport America) and West Texas (Blue Origin launch site one).
In previous statements, CALT researchers have also stated that they intend to make the superheavy Long March-9 (CZ-9) first stage reusable. Chinese state media shared images of the first parts of the rocket, including the 10-meter-long storage and fuel tanks, back in March. A parachute system similar to that developed by the CALT team could find its way into the CZ-9 second stage and possibly into the payload fairings, resulting in a fully reusable launch vehicle.
Further reading: CGTN