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Lift-off for China's Long March grid-fin tech in space race for reusable rockets

Echo Xie

China says it has successfully tested new fins on its Long March rockets to help guide spent boosters away from populated areas, possibly paving the way for development of reusable technology like SpaceX's Falcon 9.

China successfully launched a Long March 2C rocket on Friday using grid-fin technology to guide its spent booster to a landing spot in Guizhou province in the country's southwest, state-run Science and Technology Daily reported on Sunday, citing China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), a key contractor for the Chinese space programme.

The report said China was the second country to master the technology, after the United States.

Grid fins are aerodynamic control surfaces that are folded during the launch but deployed in flight. In the more sophisticated applications such as the Falcon 9, the fins manipulate the direction of the rocket during re-entry.

A Long March-2C carrier rocket carrying remote sensing satellites blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Xichang, Sichuan province, on Friday. Photo: Xinhua alt=A Long March-2C carrier rocket carrying remote sensing satellites blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Xichang, Sichuan province, on Friday. Photo: Xinhua

Shanghai-based online news outlet The Paper reported that the 2C's grid fins were developed by a team of about a dozen engineers, all under the age of 35.

The team also designed a new companion electrical control system to control the fins, taking about six months to complete the task.

China has conducted frequent satellite launches in recent years, including 38 last year, the highest total for any country in 2018. But landing safety has become an issue as traditional zones grow more populated.

Chinese media reported in January 2018 that a booster from a Long March 3B rocket created a massive fireball after it fell from the sky and exploded in a residential area, though no casualties were reported.

And Shaanxi Television reported in May this year that debris was found on a motorway in northwestern China's Shaanxi province, with residents saying they heard a loud noise and saw an object fall to the ground.

Under existing arrangements, authorities in projected landing zones have to evacuate the areas each time, not only inconveniencing residents but adding to the economic cost and difficulty of the work, according to the The Paper. The grid fins are expected to help ease some of those problems.

"The successful test of the [grid-fin] technology is of great significance to solving the landing issue," the report quoted CASC assistant director He Wei as saying.

"It also lays a solid foundation for recoverable and reusable technologies."

Long Lehao, chief commander and designer of Long March 3A rocket series, said the development of reusable technologies could support large-scale development and use of space in the future, as well as make the space programmes more commercially competitive, The Beijing News reported.

Beijing sees space as an important driver for growth and an opportunity to promote hi-tech industries.

On Thursday, Beijing-based company iSpace became the first private firm in China to successfully launch a rocket into space.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.