Space: The Long March To Orbital Domination


December 19, 2016: In a rare event, a large portion of the second stage of a Chinese Long March 11 (LM 11) rocket landed in northern Burma on November 9th. It was not subtle with the stage breaking the sound barrier (and creating a loud boom) before it hit the ground, bounced back into the air (t0 about 50 meters/153 feet) and then landed once more with a thud near an abandoned jade mind and just sat there in the mud leading to a nearby river. The rocket this was from had been launched from the JSLC (Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center), which is 1,600 kilometers from where the second stage landed. This was the second launch of the Long March 11, which is basically a solid fuel rocket with a second stage that can deploy one or more satellites before falling back to earth and burning up. The 4.5-meter (14.8 foot) long object was accompanied by several smaller fragments, one of which hit a building but caused no injuries. This was the second time a Long March 11 had been launched and the Chinese counted it a success, apparently because the five satellites it was carrying were put into orbit. The 58 ton LM 11 was designed for putting satellites up in a hurry, as in some kind of emergency. An LM 11 can put a satellite of up to 700 kg (1,540 pounds) into LEO (low earth orbit). China has not commented on what went wrong to cause such a large part of the satellite to return intact. Satellites are designed so that discarded stages will either burn up reentering the atmosphere or land in the sea (in a large area where mariners can be warned in advance to avoid).

LM 11 is the smallest member of the Long March family and the only one that does not rely on liquid fuel rocket engines. The Long March family of rockets has been very successful with few failures and few incidents like this. For example on September 1st 2016 an older model Long March satellite launcher rocket failed. This was the first Long March failure since 2013. The September failure involved the loss of a very powerful and very expensive Gaofen 10 photo reconnaissance satellite. The Long March model that failed is the 4C, which has been in service since 2006 and had 19 successful launches since then. The Long March type rockets have been in use since 1970 and has failed only the 12 times out of 236 launches. That’s a 95 percent success rate, which is quite good. But China has yet to explain why this LM 11 failure occurred and will eventually have to provide details because otherwise launch insurance will increase more than it would if details of the failure were made public. Long March is mainly used for commercial launches and that is big business.

China's main satellite launcher, the "Long March" rocket, is based on Russian designs, meaning it is simple, cheap and reliable. The Chinese have made their version of a Russian design more reliable than the Russian original. This has made China a major player in the satellite launching business because China competes on price and has acceptable reliability. The U.S. Space Shuttle was retired because it was the most expensive way to get stuff into orbit. Satellites sent up via the Space Shuttle cost $25 million a ton. The Russians and Chinese will do it for under $10 million a ton. But insurance can more than double that cost if there have been a number of recent failures with Russian and Chinese boosters. This keeps more reliable American and European boosters in business. The Long March has a failure rate of about five percent, which was a little higher than twice the rate for the most used Russian launcher. The Space Shuttle failure rate was two percent, as were most Western satellite launchers.

The Long March 3 and 4 have been doing most of the Chinese commercial launches since the 1980s. Currently the largest Long March rocket is the LM 3 model which weighs over 400 tons and can put 12 tons in LEO and 5.5 tons in a high one (geostationary transfer orbit). The Chinese took their time to perfect Long March, requiring 28 years to make the first fifty launches, and nine years for the next fifty. So far, Long March has carried out 202 successful launches.

While military satellites get more media attention, the real business of space, and where the Chinese put most of their efforts, is in commercial satellites. The Chinese have noted that since the 1980s space satellites have become big business. By 2012 there were about 1,000 active satellites in orbit, and nearly half of them were American. The number of satellites has been going down a bit since then because individual satellites last longer and can do more. It is expected that the number of satellites will now start to rise rapidly because of the popularity of mini-satellites (under 100 kg/220 pounds). Some of these mini-sats are much smaller (under ten kg) and still useful. In some cases dozens of mini-sats are put into orbit by one launcher.

About 75 percent of all satellites are non-military. Most of them are commercial, the rest government non-military birds. Since 2001 satellite industry revenues more than doubled, from $86 billion (in 2014 dollars) a year to over $200 billion now. The cost of the satellites is less than ten percent of annual satellite revenues. About four percent of the money comes from launching all those satellites and 36 percent of those launches are military. The U.S. has about a third of the launch business, mainly because of the requirement that U.S. classified satellites be launched by American rockets. About half the satellite launches (and two-thirds of the satellites) were for communications, which generates the most income (mostly for TV, followed by data). The U.S. remains the major manufacturer of commercial satellites, with over half of the market. China sees opportunity in all this and has come a long way in a short time to take advantage of it.

This all began in 1957 when the Russian Sputnik was the first satellite ever put in orbit. The U.S. followed in 1958. Since then, ten other nations have done the same. France launched its first satellite in 1965, Japan and China in 1970, Britain in 1971, and India in 1980. Israel launched its first satellite in 1988. Ukraine did so in 1995. Iran claims to have put a satellite in orbit recently, but there is no conclusive proof. North Korea put a dead (non-responsive) satellite up in December 2012 and South Korea followed with a successful launch of a very active satellite a month later.

Since 2010 China has launched about 20 satellites a year and by the end of the decade expect to have 200 satellites in orbit. This is about a fifth of the total and nearly half as many as the United States. At that point China expects to be launching 30 satellites a year and accounting for over a quarter of the worldwide launch capability. All this momentum has been the result of three decades of effort and an enormous spurt of activity since 2010. In the two decades after 1990 China carried out 30 commercial satellite launches, putting 36 satellites in orbit. Now China puts that many satellites up in 18 months.

In late 2015 China successfully tested the latest version of its Long March satellite launcher; Long March 6 (LM 6). This version is optimized for putting multiple small satellites in orbit on the same mission and on short notice. The test launch put twenty small scientific satellites into orbit. LM 6 is a 103 ton liquid fueled rocket that can put a ton of payload into a 700 kilometers high orbit. LM 6 can operate from a standard satellite launch facility or from a TEL (transporter erector launcher) vehicle (which is basically a slightly larger trailer similar to those used for hauling tanks). LM 6 was also designed to be made ready for launch quickly (six days or so) giving it a military capability. That means if China has to get a surveillance or communications satellite in orbit quickly, LM 6 is one solution, LM 11 is another (quicker but with less carrying capacity). China is also developing small surveillance and communications satellites for such emergencies.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close