back to article China's SpaceX wannabe recycles a rocket after just 38 days

Chinese private space biz i-Space (not to be confused with Japanese aerospace concern iSpace) has recycled a rocket just 38 days after its previous flight. i-Space, aka Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Co., is a private outfit that aspires to operate reusable rockets. The biz is often compared to Elon Musk's SpaceX …

  1. StrangerHereMyself Silver badge

    Hop

    A hop isn't that difficult a milestone to reach. Landing a rocket stage on a barge or even returning it back to base is a much, much harder feat which I suspect the Chinese won't be able to master anytime soon.

    1. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: Hop

      Why would they want to land it on a barge? SpaceX had no choice because the FAA wasn't going to let them try it on land until it had been proven a few times, but China is probably a bit more lax safety wise and will skip that intermediate step.

      I don't think landing a rocket is as hard as people seem to believe. There were craft making automated landings on other planets (Mars, Venus) 50 years ago. Granted they weren't tall like a rocket so less of a balance issue, but way way harder to do it on another planet where you don't get second chances (which is probably why there have been failed attempts to land on Mars, and most recently the Moon) and your failures are very public.

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Re: Hop

        I don't think landing a rocket is as hard as people seem to believe.

        True dat. It's mainly economics: it hasn't previously been worth the huge decrease in payload capacity to make rockets reusable, perhaps because there weren't many launches and governments were paying.

        1. t245t Silver badge

          Re: Hop

          >> I don't think landing a rocket is as hard as people seem to believe.

          > True dat. It's mainly economics:

          Not just economics but technological limitations. The Merlin engine, restartable, uses regenerative cooling and propellant ignited in a gas generator to drive the propellant pumps. Giving a huge weight-to-trust ratio.

      2. StrangerHereMyself Silver badge

        Re: Hop

        Because it took SpaceX years and quite a few tries to master it. It may *look* easy these days with SpaceX doing it on an almost weekly basis, but without the Chinese stealing SpaceX's source code and development documentation I don't see them reproducing this feat anytime soon.

        And SpaceX uses Linux everywhere so breaking and entering will not be an easy feat.

        1. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: Hop

          "without the Chinese stealing SpaceX's source code and development documentation I don't see them reproducing this feat anytime soon."

          They don't need to steal anything. A person I worked with in the US was a MIT grad that emigrated from Cuba. He did a whole flight system as a one man department. Another person I worked with had done the same thing, only with simpler code. I have no doubt that China has plenty of engineers capable of doing the same thing.

          1. StrangerHereMyself Silver badge

            Re: Hop

            I guess we'll see in the coming months and years. If they get it right on the first try I'm going to assume they stole the knowledge from SpaceX.

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: Hop

              On the other hand, just knowing it CAN be done, even with just the info from seeing it happen, repeatedly, and all the online discussion of how it works freely available, a decent engineer (or team) with the right backing, can replicate it. They don't need to steal, although it possibly might help speed the process along. At this stage of their design process, they are barely any further than SpaceX grasshopper, but I'd expect them to progress faster than SpaceX did since there are fewer unknowns ahead. Their aim of 2030 sounds reasonable so long as they don't get tripped up by materials science, or shoddy workmanship in and effort to get it right first time to please someone higher up the food chain like the Soviets did with Concordski. The Chinese don't seem to worry as much about technology races and being first, they play the long game, even if they don't always get it right.

              1. StrangerHereMyself Silver badge

                Re: Hop

                Just knowing it can be done isn't enough. You need more information on how and when to relight the stages, the amount of fuel needed, the steering with the gridfins and landing the stage on a swaying barge at sea. It took SpaceX years to get it right (and quite a few crashes; including some that thrashed the landing barge).

                They may get it working eventually, but it's anyone's guess when it will be.

          2. bombastic bob Silver badge
            Megaphone

            Re: Hop

            China also has COMMUNISM and "social credit scores" and other such things, which GREATLY discourages innovation,. especially within a team environment. Sure, a lone developer or engineer, with no team dynamics to get in the way, might come up with something unique and innovative. THAT is not where the problems lie.

            Under the CCP umbrella, once junior engineers are involved, there are a handful of choices they must make to get their jobs done. First, if you tell the boss he is wrong by presenting a different competing design, will it get you FIRED? Will it get you DISAPPEARED? Will you lose your status and possibility of upward mobility? After all, "the nail that sticks up gets the hammer". And if someone points out a problem to you, would it make the boss(es) LOOK BAD if you brought this to their attention, or even ADMITTED (to a client or customer or news reporter) that a problem EVEN EXISTS?

            And so on. I have indirectly observed this kind of thing happening, within the last few years even.

            Under COMMUNISM, you do as you are told. "The currently favored" may be ALLOWED to innovate. But not YOU. And so, actual innovation is STIFLED. And your reward is basically the same outcome whether you SUCCESSFULLY innovate or do what you are told. And doing what you are told is MUCH safer. So THAT is what happens. NO incentive to take risks, every incentive NOT to.

            So as long as China is COMMUNIST, they're not going to be able to innovate very well. COPY and "steal the tech", what we already KNOW they do well, will just continue.

            1. Spherical Cow Silver badge

              Re: Hop

              "So as long as China is COMMUNIST, they're not going to be able to innovate very well. COPY and "steal the tech", what we already KNOW they do well, will just continue."

              Remind me which country was the first to develop hypersonic missiles?

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Hop

                Technically we've had hypersonic weapons since the cold war since ICBMs do reach hypersonic speeds. Then we have Russia's Kinzhal which is hypersonic cause it reaches hypersonic speeds just before it hits a target. Which is why anti-missile systems have been able to shoot it down.

                The gold standard is a hypersonic missile that is maneuverable mid flight and can fly low to avoid detection. I know China has glide body nukes and hypersonic missiles, but I don't if they've cracked the maneuverability part of it. Of course there is a lot of big talk from all powers developing them so sorting it out is a mess.

      3. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

        Re: Barge

        For a low orbit you need to put about 30x as much energy into going fast as into going up. Ideally you want to launch almost sideways but if you try that on Earth air resistance spoils you day. For Earth you go up, start to tilt over as soon as possible and increase the tilt to near horizontal as the air pressure drops.

        To minimize landing propellant the first stage should shut down engines and coast until it gets close to the ground. That will be hundreds of kilometers down range. The landing point will depend on the target orbit, payload mass and the weather. Unlike the west, China can drop toxic expended boosters anywhere on land even in the middle of a village. i-Space are taking a step forward by going for a soft landing. It is easier to land on a prepared pad than random countryside. i-Space could build a new landing pad for each launch or go the SpaceX route and build a small number of mobile landing pads.

        For small payloads going to a low orbit SpaceX have performance to burn. They use it to turn the booster around after separation an rocket back to a landing pad near the lunch pad.

      4. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

        Re: 50 years to land orbital rockes on Earth

        Landing a rocket on Earth is as hard as rocket science - ie within the ability range of rocket scientists. The big barrier to doing it was financial. ULA had a functional launch system without re-use. They were an effective monopoly and their biggest customer (US tax payers) would meet any price. There was no incentive to put any investment into reducing costs until SpaceX reached orbit.

        Afterwards there were excuses:

        A) SpaceX were a startup without a long track record to prove reliability. ULA would retain all the high margin launch contracts,

        B) SpaceX focus on reducing costs would impact reliability so they would not survive in the market long.

        C) Landing a rocket on Earth costs too much performance.

        D) Although landing is possible refurbishment costs too much to be practical.

        E) Refurbishment cannot be cost effective without at least ten re-uses and SpaceX will never be able to do that even if there was enough demand.

        F) NASA/DoD want at least two independent providers. As there are only two options we can charge as much as we want.

        G) When a third provider turns up we can just sell of the business.

        Lockheed and Boeing (co-owners of ULA) worked there way through the excuses as each got destroyed by SpaceX progress. For a while there was an option to start from fresh and design a completely new cost competitive rocket using the profits of their existing business. Instead they decided to keep the money. That door closed as SpaceX reduced the cost of launch and took all but a few government launches starving ULA of the income required to modernize.

        1. StrangerHereMyself Silver badge

          Re: 50 years to land orbital rockes on Earth

          When the ULA launch prices started to near $200 - $300 million a pop even the DoD started to gulp. Everyone knew that these kind of launches were a dead end since it would become altogether unaffordable, even for the government.

      5. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        Re: Hop

        "Granted they weren't tall like a rocket so less of a balance issue, but way way harder to do it on another planet where you don't get second chances"

        "Balance" isn't a thing - moments of inertia, center of gravity and thrust control are which can sometimes make a landing rocket easier to control than a roughly spherical lander. The major problem you neglect to mention is that a lander generally does it once with a single burn of the engines, a launcher has to do it a lot of times reliably (otherwise there's no point) and, in Falcon 9's case, with multiple engine ignition sequences per landing.

        Also, last time I checked, if a booster doesn't land properly on the Earth it didn't get much of a second chance either ... the terms "kaaboom" and "enormous kaaboom" spring to mind.

        1. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: Hop

          "Also, last time I checked, if a booster doesn't land properly on the Earth it didn't get much of a second chance either ... the terms "kaaboom" and "enormous kaaboom" spring to mind."

          You also will wind up damaging your landing site when there are problems such as engine(s) not relighting. So far, SpaceX has a good track record, but that doesn't mean all of the gains won't be knocked out if they miss the landing pad at Vandenberg and damage or destroy the close-by launch rig. It's risk and not enough people take that into account.

      6. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Hop

        "but China is probably a bit more lax safety wise and will skip that intermediate step."

        It's a legal and risk issue that the Chinese government didn't see fit to impose upon themselves.

        The reason for landing on a barge is often due to the trajectory. There may not be enough fuel left to get a booster back to land.

        "I don't think landing a rocket is as hard as people seem to believe. "

        Landing the rocket is the hardest part. Going high and fast (the Falcon 9 booster isn't going to orbit) doesn't matter as much as setting down gently and precisely on target. Reuse has been a thing due to financial constraints, not technical issues. Precursor flights to the moon with the Surveyor missions was landing rockets on a different body altogether. The SLS core isn't reused as they need to squeeze all of the performance from the rocket at they can and the flight cadence is too low to make it pay beyond that.

    2. jgarbo
      Facepalm

      Re: Hop

      Yeah, what've the Chinese ever done? Paper money, gunpowder, rockets, printing, mass production, steell refining, astronomy, power looms - about 1,000 yrs before the West emerged from thatched huts. Compare how many failures ("learning experiences") Musk suffered before success, and China.

  2. Persona

    McDonnell Douglas DC-X

    Here was it being done in 1983

    https://youtu.be/JzXcTFfV3Ls

    One of its many good landings is shown in the video and the final one that was not good.

    1. en.es
      Thumb Up

      Re: McDonnell Douglas DC-X

      That's a great bit of enthusiastic reportage on Youtube!

      Never heard of the DC-X before - thank you for sharing.

      1. Crypto Monad Silver badge

        Re: McDonnell Douglas DC-X

        The video said that the oxygen tank was made "using the lightest of metals, lithium".

        Wikipedia says it was actually an aluminium-lithium alloy. Phew!

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: McDonnell Douglas DC-X

          Yeah, the voice over was more like marketing-speak than anything actually useful, implying that it would eventually reach orbit with more development, which was never going to happen. It was certainly an interesting idea for the time, and it could have done with a lot more development, especially treating that as only a first stage, but much bigger but we'll never know how things might have turned out if NASA had pushed for it as an Shuttle alternative. I suspect it would never have worked because, like the Shuttle, they were trying to do too much with one vehicle, eg the "flying" part. SpaceX came along later, took what NASA gave them, probably including stuff from that program, and pared it down to the bare essentials to make a returnable booster using the latest materials and technology and didn't try to make it fully manoeuvrable and capable of "flight" (They saved that for Starship :-))

    2. TheFifth

      Re: McDonnell Douglas DC-X

      It was also designed to be cheap and use off the shelf parts. Unfortunately, as with many things NASA do, a change in the political wind can change priorities and budgets. Imagine where they could have been now had the funding not be axed.

      Also, many of the DC-X engineers went on to work for SpaceX and Blue Origin, so they are benefiting from this knowledge.

    3. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: McDonnell Douglas DC-X

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOXAEBRR0dI

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zKy4qTr9Qw

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuJ_jASXMVY

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxAQJt-_ypE

      There might be a reason I know about these projects.

  3. s. pam Silver badge
    Angel

    No Western technology was stole^misappropriated

    In the making of our rocket whatsoever said Chinese sources.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No Western technology was stole^misappropriated

      In a cunning plan, the NSA has leaked Boeing's advanced parachute attachment technology to them.

  4. renniks

    They should've called the company XSpace to troll Space Karen...

    Wasn't Space Karen saying they were going to have 24hr turnaround? Oh wait, that was just more Muskian BS...

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      I think they can do it in 5 days, but don't normally go for speed of turnaround since they have so many productions vehicles to work with. They seem to be doing about 2 launches per week at the moment. It'll be interesting to see if/when Starship eventually succeeds and what the turnaround on that combo will be.

  5. RobThBay

    "I" stuff

    Doesn't Apple claim ownership of anything that starts with an I?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "I" stuff

      Yes. They should rename to EasySpace.

    2. IGotOut Silver badge

      Re: "I" stuff

      Yeah, they like to pretend the iPaq came later.

      1. Raphael

        Re: "I" stuff

        not to mention that Cisco had the iPhone years before Apple wanted the name

        1. PhilipN Silver badge

          Re: "I" stuff

          Right! Forgot all about that. Had one. Nifty little device.

  6. MikesInAK

    Good old Chinese knock-offs

    Half the cost, half the safety.

  7. Snapper

    Looks like a well-known brand of deodorant!

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