Space Sunday: China, stations and bits

An artist’s impression of the Chinese lunar base by the late 2030s. Credit: Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme

China has been making a lot of space-related news recently, so it’s time to catch-up on things.

At the end of April, the country confirmed it intends to have boots on the Moon by 2030. This confirmation came during a wide-ranging interview with Wu Weiren, the head of the country’s lunar exploration programme, broadcast in China ahead of the “national Space Day”, held on April 24th.

As with the US-led Artemis programme, the Chinese aim to start with a short-term stay on the Moon, followed by additional missions intended to build up to a permanent presence within a research base called the International Lunar Research Station (LRS) by the end of the 2030s.

The CLEP logo of the crescent Moon and tiakonaut boot prints, combined to resemble the Chinese symbol for the Moon

In support of this, China is operating a highly integrated development programme – the Zhōngguó Tàn Yuè (Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme (CLEP) – overseen by Wu. This combines the development and operation of on-going and future robotic mission to the Moon along with the longer-term development of crew vehicles either designed specifically for, or in support of, lunar exploration. These activities fold into them the existing orbital and soft-landing missions of Chang’e 1 through Chang’e 5, and will continue in May 2024.

It is then that China will launch Chang’e 6, a mission to investigate the topography, composition and subsurface structure of the South Pole–Aitken basin, one of the sites seen as a potential location of a future lunar base. This mission will also see an attempt to return further lunar sample to Earth – the first time samples have been returned from the Moon’s far side.

Then in 2026, Chang’e 7 will visit the same region, leaving a communication relay satellite in orbit and delivering a lander and a miniature flying probe to the surface; in 2028, Chang’e 8 is likely to deliver of a small-scale 3D printing system intended to demonstrate the use of the Moon’s regolith in the construction of a lunar base.

As well as the Chinese mission, Russia is expected to provide input to the programme as the first major partner to join with China in their lunar ambitions. This involvement is due to commence later in 2023 with the launch of the Luna 25 lander, to be followed by the Luna 26 orbiter and Luna 27 lander missions in 2027 and 2028 respectively. Russia will also provide personnel and equipment for the LRS.

Alongside of this, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) will work on crewed vehicles for transporting taikonauts to the Moon and delivering them to the surface and then back to orbit. If the plan progresses as intended, it is expected that the first phase of the International Lunar Research Station in operation by 2035 – potentially mirroring or possibly ahead of the US plans for an expanded Artemis base in the Moon’s South Polar Region.

Most recently for China has been the return to Earth of their ultra-secretive Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi (CSSHQ), an experimental spaceplane after 276 days in orbit.

An artist’s impression of China’s reusable Shenlong spaceplane. Credit: China Aerospace Studies Institute

Quite what the vehicle is remains unclear to western analysts – and matters have been muddled by differing statements made by Chinese authorities (some of which are doubtless intended to obfuscate matters), indicating that the vehicle is both an unscrewed cargo-carrying vehicle and a craft designed to carry a crew of 6 to orbit. However, this latter claim appears to be unrealistic; CCSHQ’s two flights have been aboard Long March 2F vehicles, which have a maximum payload capacity of 8.4 tonnes – but a vehicle capable of supporting a crew of six in orbit and returning them safely to Earth would have a mass well; perhaps as much as 20 tonnes at launch. The Chinese have also suggested the vehicle is a two-stage craft, using a scramjet engine for first stage propulsion.

The vehicle’s size approximates to that of the equally secretive X-37B spaceplane, some 8-9 metres in length and with a wingspan of between 3 and 4 metres. The May 8th return to Earth marks its second flight into space – the first being a modest 3-day flight in 2020.

The current mission commenced on August 4th, 2022, and gave rise to a lot of speculation when the vehicle deployed a small satellite, with some in the west claiming it was a  weapons platform – something China hotly denied. As it was, vehicle and cargo operated in close proximity to one another for a time, as if practicing rendezvous manoeuvres. In addition to this, CSSHQ performed more extensive manoeuvres, including altering its orbit, raising and lowering it.

The reusable test spacecraft successfully launched by our country at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre successfully returned to the scheduled landing site on May 8 after flying in orbit for 276 days. The complete success of this test marks an important breakthrough in our country’s research on reusable spacecraft technology, which will provide a more convenient and inexpensive way to and from the peaceful use of space in the future.

– China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) statement

The Chinese space plane is roughly the same size and the US X-37B, shown above in its former USAF marking. Credit: Giuseppe De Chiara

As with the first mission, the launch commenced from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert and while accounts vary, it appears to have concluded with the craft landing at the Lop Nur military base in Xinjiang, as it did at the end of its maiden flight.

Some in the west have been keen to play down this mission, noting that the X-37B’s first flight lasted 224 days, and its most recent – which ended in November 2022 – was908 days in length. However, the X-37B has a development history going back, and took a decade to extend its flight envelope from 224 to 908 days. CSSHQ appears to have been in development for less than a decade, and saw its mission duration leap from 4 days to 276 in just two flights – so it is hardly something to be sneezed at purely on the basis of flight duration.

Vast Contract SpaceX to Launch “World’s First Commercial Space Station”

Vast (also styling itself Vast Space), a privately held American aerospace company founded in 2021, has announced ambitious plans to launch the world’s first commercial orbital facility, Haven-1 in August 2025, and that they have engaged SpaceX to handle the launch and deliver at least one 4-person crew to the station.

“Ambitious”, because prior to February 2023, all Vast has was a mission statement (to build artificial gravity space stations), a logo and a 10,700 square metre facility in Long Beach California; outside of the founders, it did not even have employees. That changed in February with the acquisition of another start-up, Launcher, a company developing 3D printed rocket motors and an orbital transfer vehicle; this afforded Vast assets, products – but not the expertise required to build a module capable of supporting 4 people in orbit for up to 30 days at a time.

An artist’s impression of the Vast Haven-1 module with a Crew Dragon docked against it. Credit: Vast Space LLC

However, Vast claim they can reduce the time required to build the unit by “repurposing” elements of the automated orbital transfer vehicle. If true, this still leaves them having to ensure the 10.1 metre by 3.8 metre module is fully capable of supporting life – something which is not a priority for robotic vehicles.

In addition, the module will have deployable solar panels capable of generating up to 15 kW of electrical power, a docking module at one end suitable for capturing Crew Dragon vehicles, and around 70 cubic metres of total pressurised volume. At 14 tonnes, it is intended to be launched with all the consumables needed to support a visiting crew during their stay, with additional crews able to carry further supplies with them aboard Crew Dragon.

Exactly what Haven-1 will be used for is unclear. “Research” has been mentioned, but it also seems to be about space tourism; as a part of a deal with SpaceX, which will see the module launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, Vast have committed to one 4-person Crew Dragon launch to the module (the “Vast-1” mission), and plan to sell these seat on to interested parties, who will also have to pay for training through SpaceX. The contract also includes the option to purchase a second Crew Dragon flight in 2026.

CAD drawings of the proposed “spinning stick” station (l) and a space wheel from Vast Aerospace, both of which will supposedly provide artificial gravity environments – the former by spinning the 7-metre diameter chain of modules around its longitudinal axis, a proposition that looks questionable at best. Credit: Vast Aerospace

Equally ambitious are the company’s longer-term plans. According to their website, they place to launch a much larger “Starship class” module with a diameter of 7 metres (but unspecified length) using the SpaceX Starship. This module class will then – they claim – be used to build 100-metre long “spinning stick” stations which will “provide various gravitational environments including Earth, Mars, Moon, and asteroid gravities” – although whether this is really practicable in a space just 7 metres across and spinning around its longitudinal axis is questionable at the least.

Vast claim these “spinning sticks” will be constructed over seven Starship launches apiece and support up to 40 people each, paving the way through the 2030s to a “proliferated space fleet” comprising “dozens” of stations of various types “across the solar system” in the 2040s. These, if the website is to be believed, will include units modelled on the classic “spinning wheel” stations beloved of science-fiction.

Just how well the company succeeds in these goals remains to be seen. I’m personally not holding my breath. I will give them full marks for the Haven-1 promo video, however.

Quick Updates

JUICE Deploys Antenna

In my previous Space Sunday update, I noted Europe’s flagship Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, JUICE mission had hit a problem in deploying a 16-metre radar boom, vital to probing the icy surfaces of Ganymede and Europa to depths of up to 9 km to see what lay beneath.

Imaginatively called RIME – Radar for Icy Moons Exploration – the boom appeared to get stuck as a result of a release pin failing to work properly. At the time of that report, initial efforts to free the boom had failed, but ESA engineers were convinced the pin only needed to be moved a “matter of millimetres” in order for the boom to be able to successfully deploy.

A .GIF capturing the RIME radar boom aboard ESA’s JUICE mission starting to deploy and then snagging, possibly due to a stuck release pin. Credit: ESA

Well, they were right. After initially trying to jiggle the pin free using the vehicle’s thrusters in a series of small jolts and orienting the spacecraft in the hope that exposure to direct sunlight would cause the pin’s mounting bracket to expand as it was warmed, data from the vehicle suggested the pin had indeed moved, and that a short, sharp shock would dislodge it completely. This prompted engineers to fire a mechanical device called a ‘non-explosive actuator’ (NEA), on Friday, May 12th. Located in the pin’s mounting bracket and intended to help the boom unfold once the pin had released, the shock from the actuator against the bracket did indeed dislodge the pin, and the boom successfully unfurled ready to commence commissioning tests.

Virgin Orbit Gains Bankruptcy Extension

Also following on from my previous update, struggling Virgin Orbit has reached an agreement with the court and with creditors to extend the deadline to secure bids from parties interested in purchasing the company. Under the new arrangement. bidders have until May 19th to submit bids, and the company has until May 21st to issue notifications to successful bidders.

This suggests the company, which entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection at the start of April, laying off most of its staff in the process, has yet to find one or more potential buyers. In negotiating the extension, Virgin Galactic would only say they have more than 30 “indications of interest”, several of which from parties expressing a wish to keep the company as an operating entity – but not confirmed offers.

If an agreement isn’t reached, the company will be broken up and assets sold to recoup money owed to creditors and to support formal severance payments to staff – something which might also happen even if a buyer did secure the company. However, some of the more obvious assets may not be available to buyers / creditors; in April, as part of a refinancing deal intended to help Virgin Orbit stay afloat / assist with staff and creditor pay-offs in the event of formal closure, the Virgin Investment Group secured the right of transfer of the 747 carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl back into the Virgin Group in the event of no buyer being found.

Work Commences on UK’s Sutherland Spaceport

After three years of delay – largely due to environmental studies and local and national regulatory requirements – ground has finally been broken on Scotland’s Sutherland Spaceport, located on the A’ Mhòine peninsula.

The site was first announced as the location for a new commercial vertical launch facility in 2018, with £2.55 million seed funding from the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and £9 million from the Scottish government’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise, coupled with funding from the (then) companies expected to operate from the site: Europe’s Orbex (also based in Scotland), and Lockheed Martin. However, as the delays mounted (exacerbated by the COVID situation), Lockheed pulled out of the arrangement in 2020, opting to utilise SaxaVord Spaceport to be built on the Shetland Islands, sharing facilities there with another US launch company, Astra Aerospace.

A rendering of the Orbex vehicle processing and facilities as they will look once construction of the Sutherland Spaceport. Credit: Orbex  

The various environmental and regulatory issues relating to the Sutherland site were cleared at the end of 2022, and with better weather now available, construction has started, with the major work expected to be completed by the end of 2023, Orbex having raised a further £40.4 million for the project to add to the £19.3 million it previously raised.

Once operational, the site will be used to launch the company’s own Prime rocket vehicle. This is currently in development and is expected to be able to deliver up to 150 kg to  Sun-synchronous (polar) orbits, with the first launch of the vehicle potentially coming in late 2024.


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