China's space program is based on years of meticulous planning, or so it was until recently. Reusable rocket technology has allowed it to develop its capabilities in this area more quickly, as evidenced by a "mysterious" rocket seen at a recent airshow.
China's space program has been focused on the same goals since the 90s: launch a manned spacecraft (done, with Shenzhou 5, in 2003). Building a space outpost (done, in 2019), to develop a permanent crew by 2020 (here there is a pinch of delay, but very little: the Tiangong space station is about to be completed). What comes next?
The next steps
I told you about manifest intentions a few days ago: China seems to point to 2028 as a date for a human outpost: a settlement on the Moon. To do this, he has been testing various solutions for some time: we know one of them, and it is a huge rocket called Long March 9 (LM-9). Other solutions are currently much more "discreet", if you'll forgive the euphemism.
Two things are certain: first, the current technology exhibited by China (that of the powerful Long March 5 rockets) is not capable of invading human missions to the Moon. Second, the Long March 9's technology also appears to need a lot of tweaking before final launch.
We are left with the last hypothesis, the "secret" one: a reusable rocket similar to a spaceship with a cryptic name: Project 921.
Reusable rockets that are captured "by lasso"? It's not science fiction
From the few reports available, the development of the "921" started in 2017 . When completed, it will be available in two versions: a "single-core" one to get materials and vehicles into orbit, and the other "triple-core" one to go... well, further.
The central core of these rockets can reach a height of almost 90 meters. According to recently released specifications, the single-core variant will be capable of carrying 18 tons and will replace all, or almost all, of China's launch carriers.
Many elements (reuse of projects that have already started, or engines in an advanced stage of testing) suggest that the Chinese are really racing on the project. And the date scheduled for the first test flight (2026) confirms these impressions. In summary, Project 921 is not a paper rocket or a concept.
Large, capacious, reusable
Though not right away, engineers are working to make the 921 design reusable by 2032, with reuse technology already being tested now. Like the Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, will use it to head in a fall towards an ocean landing pad.
Unlike the Falcon 9, however, China plans to ditch the landing "legs" in favor of an innovative capture system. Landing legs have proven to be a difficult engineering challenge for reusable rockets: they create drag and add significant weight, reducing payload capacity.
SpaceX also ditched the landing legs entirely for Starship's first stage, instead hoping to "catch" it upon landing using the launch tower itself. China's approach is similar in principle but potentially much simpler.
New 921 promotional video shows a double layer of parallel cables or tethers tightening around the rocket as it approaches touchdown. The cables, presumably with some degree of elasticity, provide the necessary shock absorption needed to cushion the rockets with no moving parts.
Presumably, these cables can "tighten" in different directions/locations if the rocket doesn't land squarely on the landing pad. A sort of "lasso" that envelops the rocket until it stops. Even if to me they look like wires for hanging clothes. Will they work?
Reusable rockets, an exciting future
Ultimately, China's approach to landing and reusing rockets will benefit the industry and humanity as a whole. More innovation and competition in this nascent industry will continue to drive launch costs down and hopefully open the door to a brighter future for space exploration.