How is China Advancing its Space Launch Capabilities?

How is China Advancing its Space Launch Capabilities?
How is China Advancing its Space Launch Capabilities?
How is China Advancing its Space Launch Capabilities? Top

    Conducting activities in space embodies the pinnacle of technological achievement. While space technologies like communications satellites and navigation systems underpin much of modern life, only a handful of countries have the capability to indigenously launch payloads into space. China sits among this elite group of spacefaring nations. Closing the technology gap with more-advanced space powers will, however, require China to make significant headway.

    China’s Growing Presence in Space

    The successful launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in October 1957 ushered in a new era where countries around the world raced to develop and launch their own satellites. The US launched Explorer 1 in January 1958. France and Japan delivered their own satellites into orbit in the following years. With the launch of Dong Fang Hong 1 (East Is Red 1) in April 1970, China became the fifth country to indigenously launch a satellite into orbit.

    First Successful Orbital Launches
    Country/Agency Date
    USSR/Russia October 4, 1957
    USA January 31, 1958
    France November 26, 1965
    Japan February 11, 1970
    China April 24, 1970
    UK October 28, 1971
    European Space Agency December 24, 1979
    India July 18, 1980
    Israel September 19, 1988
    Iran February 2, 2009
    North Korea December 12, 2012
    Source: Various

    Throughout the Cold War, activity in space was dominated by the US and the Soviet Union. Between 1957 and 1991, Soviet rockets completed an impressive 2,309 successful launches.1 This was more than double the 938 launches by the US. For its part, China launched only 28 rockets over the same period; all other countries completed a combined 225 launches.

    Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, this trend predictably began to shift. Since 1992, Russia has averaged 30 launches per year – a considerable decline from its average of 66 launches per year during the Cold War. By comparison, US launches have remained relatively consistent, averaging 27 per year through 1991, and 23 per year since 1992.  

    Perhaps the most significant change in the post-Cold War era has been China’s growing importance as a space actor. Between 2010 and 2019, China conducted 207 launches, more than one-and-a-half times the number of launches it carried out in the previous four decades. More than one-fifth of China’s total launches took place in 2018 and 2019 alone. Moreover, China’s 38 launches in 2018 stand as the highest amount in a single year by any country in the 21st century.

    Launches are not the only means of measuring space activity. Payloads – which can include satellites, space probes, and spacecraft – tell another part of the story.2 A total of 2,791 Soviet payloads were launched into space during the Cold War.3 This was more than double the 1,193 payloads of the US and more than 10 times the number of payloads from the rest of the world.

    Improved technology has reduced the size of satellites, and rockets now often carry multiple payloads per launch. The US has been at the forefront of these innovations, accumulating 1,763 payloads launched between 1992 and 2019. Russia’s 840 payloads and China’s 480 payloads round out the top three. In 2017, an Indian PSLV rocket set a record for successfully launching 104 satellites at once.

    Earth-orbiting satellites are, by far, the most common payloads launched into space. These satellites provide numerous capabilities such as communications, navigation, and Earth observation. As of March 2020, there were 2,666 known satellites in orbit. Of these, 13.6 percent (363 satellites) are owned or operated by Chinese entities.4 This is more than twice the number of Russian satellites (169) in operation. The US maintains an impressive 1,327 satellites, which is roughly half of all known satellites in orbit.

    Many of the satellites operated by China are part of the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which has been designed as an alternative to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), the Russian GLONASS, and the European Galileo systems. In June 2020, China successfully deployed its final third-generation BeiDou satellite, completing the constellation. With a total of 35 satellites in orbit, the BeiDou constellation outnumbers the 31 operational GPS satellites that were in orbit as of May 2020.5

    BeiDou represents more than just a technological breakthrough for China. A 2016 government white paper on BeiDou highlights the satellite constellation’s importance in supporting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by providing navigational services to developing countries. BeiDou already serves more than 30 BRI countries, including Pakistan, Laos, and Indonesia. China’s use of BeiDou in supporting the BRI demonstrates Beijing’s commitment to leveraging its space capabilities to help shape affairs back on Earth.

    China’s Current Space Launch Capabilities

    The immense technical expertise and financial resources needed to develop rockets powerful enough to successfully deliver payloads into orbit precludes most countries from developing indigenous launch capabilities. This leaves the vast majority of countries reliant on foreign launch vehicles for their missions in space. Even the United States relies on foreign-built rockets for launching some of its payloads. China, however, bucks this trend. Nearly all Chinese satellites currently in orbit were launched aboard Chinese-made rockets.

    The Long March series of rockets, which includes several variants with different capabilities, is at the core of China’s space launch capabilities. Long March rockets are designed and developed by the state-owned defense industry giant, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). A CASC subsidiary, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, has produced nearly all (15 variants) of the Long March series, including the Long March 1 (CZ-1) that carried China’s first satellite into orbit in 1970.6

    Long March rockets have carried out almost all Chinese space launches. Through 2019, the Long March series completed 307 successful launches,, and experienced 7 partial failures and 9 failures. This gives the series a success rate of 95 percent,7 which compares closely with key launch vehicles of other countries. The Delta series, which currently operates as an integral component of US military efforts in space, has a 95.5 percent success rate. Russia’s Soyuz rocket family has completed more launches than any other rocket series in history and enjoys a success rate of 97.2 percent.

    One of the most successful Long March variants, the CZ-2F, has a perfect record of 13 successful launches. The CZ-2F was designed to launch the Shenzhou spacecraft, which has supported all six of China’s crewed missions. A major technological achievement, human spaceflight has only been achieved by two other countries: the US and Russia. The US ended its space shuttle program in 2011, leaving it reliant on Russian rockets for crewed missions for nearly a decade. However, the US regained the ability to launch its own crewed missions with the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in May 2020. NASA is also developing the Space Launch System, which aims to send US astronauts to the moon in 2024. 

    The Long March series has also experienced some significant setbacks. The most deadly Chinese rocket accident occurred in February 1996 when a CZ-3B faltered immediately after takeoff and exploded in a small village near the Xichang launch facility in Sichuan.8 A more recent (but non-lethal) high-profile failure was that of the Long March 5 (CZ-5) in July 2017. After completing its first successful launch in November 2016, a second CZ-5 rocket lost thrust six minutes into its flight and fell into the Pacific Ocean.

    The failure of the CZ-5 is particularly notable, as it is China’s most powerful rocket and its first heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLV).9 With a maximum payload capacity of 25,000 kilograms (kg) to low-earth orbit (LEO), the CZ-5 embodies China’s efforts to match the HLVs of other space leaders. The CZ-5’s maximum payload capacity is comparable to the US’ Delta IV Heavy (28,370 kg to LEO), which has been active since 2004. It is likewise similar to Europe’s Ariane 5 (21,000 kg to LEO) and Russia’s Proton-M (23,000 kg to LEO), both of which have been in service since the early 2000s.

    The CZ-5’s failed second launch delayed the construction of the planned Chinese space station and threatened to stall other important missions. In December 2019, however, the CZ-5 staged a major comeback, successfully launching its payload into orbit and indicating China’s space program was back on track.

    Success Rates of Key Rocket Series
    Country Rocket Series Success Rate (%)
    Russia Soyuz 97.2
    USA Delta 95.5
    China Long March 95.3
    India PSLV 93.3
    USA Falcon 93.1
    Russia Kosmos 92.6
    Russia Vostok 91.0
    USA Atlas 89.6
    Source: Space Launch Report
    Note: Based on orbital launches through 2018

    China suffered another setback with the failed launch of the Long March 7A (CZ-7A) in March 2020. The CZ-7A is a more powerful variant of the CZ-7, which has executed two successful launches since 2016. The CZ-7A is designed to be cheaper and safer than many older Long March rockets, and in the coming years is expected to replace the CZ-3B as China’s primary launch vehicle for delivering communications satellites into orbit.

    Other recently developed Long March variants have had more success. China’s Long March 11 (CZ-11), for instance, has performed nine successful launches since 2015. With a payload capacity of only 750 kg to LEO, the CZ-11 prioritizes mobility and shorter launch preparation times. Beijing hopes the CZ-11 will give it a competitive edge in commercial launches and allow China to provide more launch services to BRI partners. The CZ-11 accomplished a major breakthrough in June 2019 when it launched from a barge in the Yellow Sea, making China the third country after the US and Russia to perform a successful sea-based space launch.

    China’s Space Launch Facilities
    Spaceport Launches (1957-2019) Primary Function(s)
    Xichang 136 Launches to GEO
    Jiuquan 114 Launches to LEO; Crewed Missions
    Taiyuan 75 Launches to LEO
    Wenchang 4 Heavy-lift launches
    Source: CSIS Aerospace Security Project
    Note: GEO = Geosynchronous orbit; LEO = Low-earth orbit

    Almost all of China’s rockets have launched from spaceports in Xichang, Jiuquan, and Taiyuan. Each launch facility has unique features that lend themselves to certain functions. The Jiuquan facility, for instance, is the primary platform for launching to LEO. It also supports crewed space missions on the CZ-2F.

    A fourth facility was opened in Wenchang on the island province of Hainan in 2016. The new spaceport’s location allows launches to take place over the sea, far from populated areas. The facility’s proximity to the equator also enables rockets to take advantage of Earth’s rotation to reduce fuel expenditure and increase maximum payload capacity. This added boost will be important to future missions in which heavy-lift (and eventually super heavy-lift) launch vehicles are tasked with sending large payloads to Earth’s orbit and beyond.

    China’s Future Space Launch Capabilities

    China has set an ambitious agenda to transform itself into a world-leading space power by 2045. A key part of this process is mastering independent innovation in the space industry. In pursuit of this goal, China has invested heavily in research and development (R&D). According to official government figures, China’s spending on R&D for “spacecraft manufacturing” skyrocketed from $22.6 million in 2000 to $386.6 million in 2016. Patent filings from the spacecraft manufacturing industry likewise surged from 10 applications in 2000 to 632 applications in 2016.

    In terms of government spending on overall space activities, China ranked second globally in 2018 at $5.8 billion. This surpassed the offerings of Russia ($4.2 billion) and France ($3.2 billion), but significantly trailed the US. At $40.1 billion in spending, the US alone accounted for well over half of government financing for space activities around the world.

    Government funding is only one part of the overall space economy, and its share is expected to slide as the commercial space industry jumps in importance. Morgan Stanley estimates that the global space industry was valued at approximately $350 billion in 2016, with 24.8 percent of the total stemming from governments. By 2040, the space industry is expected to top $1 trillion in value, with government space programs accounting for only 17.2 percent.

    Government Spending on Space Programs (2018)
    Country Expenditure
    (Billions of US$)
    Global Share (%)
    USA 40.1 56.6
    China 5.8 8.2
    Russia 4.2 5.9
    France 3.2 4.5
    Japan 3.1 4.4
    Rest of World 14.4 20.3
    Source: Euroconsult

    The emergence of the commercial space industry and private space companies is significantly reducing the cost of launches. Private innovators in the US, like SpaceX and Blue Origin, have been driving this revolution. In 2015, SpaceX completed the world’s first successful vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL) of an orbital class rocket with the Falcon 9. Two years later the Falcon 9 achieved the first ever re-flight of an orbital class rocket. This has contributed to launch costs as low as $1,400 per metric ton to LEO – a fraction of the cost of most government-led launch vehicle programs.

    China is developing its own reusable technology. The planned Long March 8 (CZ-8) is designed for VTVL. The rocket is expected to conduct its first trial in 2020. Once operational, the CV-8 could provide China with a cost-effective and commercially competitive member of the Long March line-up.

    Launch Costs of Key Rockets
    Country/Agency Rocket Cost per metric ton (US$)
    USA Falcon Heavy 1,411
    USA Falcon 9 2,719
    Russia Proton M 2,826
    China Long March 3A 8,235
    European Space Agency Ariane 5 8,476
    China Long March 2D 8,571
    USA Delta IV Medium/Heavy 13,894 – 17,410
    Russia Soyuz 2 16,495
    Source: Various

    Private startups in China are also seeking to carve out a niche in the market. China’s first private rocket manufacturer LinkSpace completed its third successful test of the reusable RLV-T5 rocket in August 2019. The company hopes that developing VTVL capabilities will enable it to significantly lower launch costs and thereby compete for commercial launch customers.

    Only one private Chinese company, i-Space, has completed a successful satellite launch. In July 2019, i-Space’s small Hyperbola-1 rocket (with payload capacity of 300 kg to LEO) delivered two satellites into orbit. The rocket was expendable, but the next generation Hyperbola-2 will be partially reusable and feature VTVL capabilities.

    China’s fledgling private space industry considerably lags its booming counterpart in the US. Through October 2019, SpaceX alone has completed 81 missions. Blue Origin is also making significant advances. Originally focusing on sub-orbital crewed flights, Blue Origin has expanded its products to include orbital launch vehicles. Its upcoming heavy-lift rocket, the New Glenn, is scheduled to debut in 2021 with a payload capacity of 45,000 kg to LEO.

    To advance the development of its space industry, Beijing is promoting civil-military fusion (CMF) to facilitate the transmission of defense technology from the military into the commercial sector. China’s private space startups have already benefited from CMF, receiving active support from the military and state-owned defense industries. Advancing CMF will also allow commercial enterprises to contribute to military efforts.

    Going forward, CMF could allow China’s commercial space industry to mature while its military and state-owned enterprises focus on more ambitious projects like the Long March 9 (CZ-9), a super heavy-lift rocket projected to become operational in 2030. The CZ-9 will be capable of lifting a massive 140,000 kg to LEO and is expected to match the Space Launch System currently under development by NASA. Developing the CZ-9 is a critical step in advancing China’s long-term goals in space, including sample-return missions to Mars and landing humans on the moon. ChinaPower