The words “reusable rocket” instantly conjure up the name of two bold and prominent US companies that never fail to turns heads where it’s launches are concerned; SpaceX and Blue Origin. But quietly working away under the cover of relative anonymity is LinkSpace – Chinas answer to SpaceX and it has just launched its own reusable rocket prototype called NewLine Baby.
NewLine Baby, or RLV-T5 as it is officially known, is 8.1 metres high, weighs 1.5 tons and uses five liquid rocket engines in parallel to get it off the ground. It hovered in place for 10 seconds after rising to a height of 20 metres during a test flight in eastern China’s Shandong province last week.
The rocket made a perfect landing despite strong cross winds to touchdown very close, if not almost exactly, on the same spot it had taken off from - a white circular launch pad emblazoned with the words “Welcome to Earth”.
This momentous undertaking was watched by Dr Robert Zubrin, a NASA engineer, and LinkSpace founder Wang Jian, amongst others. Zubrin likened LinkSpace’s recent accomplishment to watching “a 7-year-old Mozart composing a symphony,” adding that simply getting off the [launch] pad is a victory in its own right.
The flight was designed to test many key technologies such as multiple engine thrust adjustment, multiple start, vector nozzle, and roll control ready for subsequent testing at increased heights.
“With this success, we will now aim to reach a height of 1,000 meters with our reusable technology,” Chu Longfei, LinkSpace’s chief technology officer said.
Although the controlled hover was a resounding success for this private Chinese aerospace company, it has no plans to take on its US competitors just yet. Instead this self-professed lower-budget player is aiming at a smaller but currently uncontested suborbital launch market.
“A solid-fuelled sounding rocket now costs 2 to 3 million yuan [$300,000-450,000],” Chu said, referring to the costs associated with launching a non-reusable model. “Our product will cost around one-fifth of that price.”
The company is also working on NewLine-1, a two-stage rocket with a reusable first stage designed to launch microsats and nanosats. Fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene in its first stage, this 20 metre rocket’s maiden launch is scheduled for 2020. The company also has plans to develop a reusable second stage for later versions of the NewLine family.