HELSINKI — An explosion severely damaged rocket facilities at China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in October 2021, commercial satellite imagery shows.
Jiuquan Spaceport is located in the Gobi Desert and hosts major orbital launches, including all human spaceflight missions from Shenzhou. Established in 1958, it is the first of China’s four national spaceports to be built.
Evidence of the explosion was discovered by a space enthusiast Harry Stranger using images from Airbus and CNES and posted to Twitter on June 10.
The incident occurred at facilities built about 16 kilometers southwest of Jiuquan’s two main launch complexes. The pair of launch pads are used by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) for Long March hypergolic rocket launches for manned spaceflight, civilian, military and scientific missions and were unaffected by the explosion.
High-resolution images show the facilities, which may have been used to test solid rocket engines, intact in October 2021. The apparent aftermath of an explosion can be seen in an image from November 2021.
High-resolution satellite images show there was an explosion at a launch pad south of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in October 2021.
— Harry Stranger (@Harry__Stranger) June 10, 2022
Other satellite images of Planet’s Super Dove satellites as seen by SpaceNews indicates that the explosion occurred between 0316 UTC October 15 and 0407 UTC October 16 (11:16 p.m. October 14 and 12:07 a.m. October 16 Eastern Time).
China’s Shenzhou-13 mission with crew took off from Jiuquan at 4:23 p.m. UTC on October 15 (12:23 p.m. Eastern Time), suggesting that the explosion had little to no impact on CASC, the nation’s leading space contractor, and its core businesses.
There is no indication that the explosion was reported by Chinese media. It is therefore not known what the facilities were used for and what caused the explosion. Given the profile of launches at Jiuquan, it is likely that the structures were related to the testing and assembly of solid rockets operated by non-CASC entities. Construction of the test facilities began in September 2018.
CASIC, a giant state-owned defense contractor, separate from CASC but with its own space ambitionsis developing a series of solid rockets for orbital launches and has established infrastructure at Jiuquan for launches of Kuaizhou-1A and larger Kuaizhou-11 rockets using transport erector launchers rather than a launch pad and service structure.
Both suffered launch failures. The first failed in December 2021 after a return to flying earlier in the fall. The Kuaizhou-11 failed with its first and so far only launch in 2020 and has since remained grounded.
The Kuaizhou-11 was expected to resume flight before the end of 2021 according to earlier reports. A news Release of CASIC subsidiary Expace said final assembly preparations for a launch were underway in August. No such launch attempt has been reported.
Chinese Solid Rocket Efforts
Launch of Kuaizhou rockets from Jiuquan is part of larger development effort solid rocket launch capabilitiesincluding privately funded launch service providers.
However, a number of strong launchers have experienced failures, with private company iSpace suffering a third consecutive loss of a mission last month, casting doubt on the prospects of the Hyperbola-1 rocket. Landspace and OneSpace launches in 2018 and 2019 also failed.
However, alternatives are also on the way. Galactic Energy, established after the first commercial movers mentioned above, succeeded with both launches of its Ceres-1 rocket and plans a third around July.
CAS Space, spun off from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is preparing for its first mission, using the ZK-1A designed to carry up to 2 metric tons of payload to LEO, which would be the largest solid rocket of China when it lifts leave in June or July. CASC spin-off China Rocket has launched a Jielong-1 (“Smart Dragon”) rocket and plans to launch the larger Jielong-3 in the second half. CASC also operates its strong Long March 11 from Jiuquan and other locations.
Jiuquan also hosted the construction of infrastructure for the launches of new liquid methane-oxygen launchers, Landspace in front test launches its Zhuque-2 rocket in the near future.
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