Chinese space industry is not resting on its laurels and is trying to stay up to date with new technologies.
After focusing on hypersonic propulsion which was unveiled in the end of the 2015 and developing own space station Tiangong, Chinese space industry took next challenge. It is reusable technology in rockets which was developed by present leaders – two American companies operating independently: Blue Origin and SpaceX. According to Xinhua News Agency, work under creating adequate solution in China is in continuous progress. Xinhua refers to anonymous Source close to Academy of Launch Vehicle Technologies (CALT). Source claims that CALT created technology demonstrator which was tested on strap-on booster of Long March rocket. It was not unveiled when and on which version of Long March such technology was tested, but first test was already performed; according to Xinhua it was “weeks after” landing of SpaceX Falcon-9 on drone vessel on April 9, 2016. Source claims that new technology will be based on multiple parachutes which could be similar to solution used in reusable technology utilized in Space Shuttle boosters. Assumptions were confirmed partially by Ma Zhibin who is deputy director in aerospace department in CALT. In interview given to Xinhua he also stated that first launch vehicle equipped with reusable technology should be ready before 2020:
“There is of course more than one way to do this … I believe we could see some serious results during the 13th Five-Year Plan period,”
Now it is time for reality. Generally reusable technology, which is developed by SpaceX and Blue Origin could be described as “active reusability”. After liftoff and separation of the first stage (in case of Falcon-9) or deploying crew capsule (in case of Blue Origin New Shepard), both rockets are falling and use their own propulsion to reduce speed, stabilize flight and finally perform touch down. These rockets are able to land precisely on designated landing zone and as Falcon-9 showed, even if it is unstable vessel on the sea. Now what Chinese seemed to test, is only kind of “passive reusability”. With parachutes, strap-on booster is only reducing speed – without possibility of changing speed, changing course, not to mention about precise landing. It is worth to be stressed that object which is falling on parachute is extremely dependable from wind, so large booster, which naturally should deploy parachutes early enough to reduce speed, will be flying with the wind quite long. It could land many kilometers from landing zone, not to mention about creating serious threat for populated regions, ships, or car traffic. To prevent such situation large landing zone should be used. This stands basically in the opposition of American approach of the reusability, which should serve to short time between launches and reduce costs. Now if we add to Chinese concept, fact that during free landing on parachute booster could be easily broken due the poor surface of landing zone or by sudden wind blow, we can see that using parachutes is not best idea ever. Of course maybe CALT will add small rocket thrusters which will fire before touch down to rapidly reduce speed to prevent destroying booster in case hard landing or will implement mechanism to control descending on parachute. Still it seems something less reliable than solution offered by Blue Origin or SpaceX, moreover it will be extremely difficult to adopt this kind of solution for large rockets.