China is working on new vehicles for a variety of human spaceflight missions, including a new methane-fueled rocket that appears to be inspired by SpaceX. Is this a first-of-its-kind technology? Is this a carbon copy of SpaceX’s Starship, or something similar?
Who is making this “Chinese Starship”?
Wang Xiaojun, president of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), a major state-owned rocket manufacturer, revealed the notion during a keynote lecture. The CALT presented a proposal for a two-stage methane-liquid launch system earlier this month that looked disturbingly similar to SpaceX’s recently successful reusable rocket, Starship. The pictures on the slides, for example, are very similar to SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft. “We’re working on a human launch vehicle that uses LOX-methane as a propellant,” explains Wang of CALT.
Some information about the actual Starship by SpaceX
The Starship spaceship and Super Heavy rocket (together known as Starship) are a fully reusable transportation system designed to transport both personnel and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond. With the capacity to deliver more than 100 metric tonnes to Earth orbit, Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever created.
SpaceX has been constructing the almost 400-foot tall Starship rocket with the objective of creating a spacecraft that can transport goods and groups of people beyond Earth. By landing the most costly portion of the rocket and reusing it several times, SpaceX has slowly reduced the cost of its current fleet of Falcon 9 rockets to below $30 million each flight. Despite the fact that Starship is several times larger and is estimated to cost billions of dollars to construct, Musk claims that the next-generation rocket will be far less expensive each launch. (More on Starlink almost colliding with the Chinese space station recently here.)
More information about China’s Starship lookalike
The country is developing a new generation reusable launch vehicle for missions to LEO and beyond, based on developed technologies, as well as a winged space transportation system and a fully reusable and low-cost two-stage methane-liquid oxygen launcher, reportedly based on SpaceX’s Starship system concept. The latter, in particular, looks to represent a new route for China. The first stage would land vertically, while the second stage would use wings for initial declaration before descending and landing vertically. While the images resemble systems in development in the United States, the work on the launcher is still in the early stages of development and is unlikely to represent a finished idea or authorised project. There was no indication of when the initial rollout might happen.
But, to be honest, there are distinctions as well. CALT’s launch mechanism is capable of transporting roughly 20 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, whereas SpaceX’s massive spaceship is capable of transporting 100 tonnes. During takeoff, there appear to be some variances in how the engines generate thrust. There’s a fair probability CALT used some clever shortcuts to demonstrate an early version of its proposed methane-LOX launch system. It’s also possible that its design language will evolve over time.
Other plans regarding China’s space travel in future
CALT has been working on a next generation launch vehicle for human spaceflight over the past few years. The rocket builds on advancements achieved with the Long March 5, the country’s biggest launcher at the moment. The new launcher will be available in two versions: a two-stage single-core version for LEO missions and a three-stage triple-core version for missions beyond LEO. China was formerly thought to be considering human-rated Long March 7 and Long March 5B rockets for these missions. (More on the Long March series rockets here.)
Aside from the state-owned CALT and CASC, a number of commercial launch vehicle businesses are also pursuing research and developing rockets for both outer space and point-to-point travel. Landspace, a private company, is ready to launch its methane-fueled Zhuque-2 launch vehicle for the first time in the near future. Other major spacefaring nations are working on plans for human travel to the moon and Mars, with the objectives of using space resources and establishing long-term stays outside the planet. In July 2020, Russia’s space organisation Roscosmos unveiled plans for a reusable rocket called Amur that appeared to be a much clearer copy-paste job of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. (More on another successful private launch company raising $100 million.)