In the Jiuquan space center, the calm of the desert

The very first Chinese space site is still a center of great importance for the industry today. Communist China sent its first satellite and its first astronauts there.

With the arrival of NewSpace, Jiuquan even has a new lease of life!

(Not) welcome to Jiuquan

Jiuquan is not one of the most beautiful space centers in the world. There is no spectacular coast here, no palm or coconut trees, just sand. The landscape is desolate, flat as the back of your hand for tens of kilometers, with grassy plains in the spring, scorched the rest of the year, and a few bushes isolated in the middle of the dust. 150 kilometers further north and it is the border with Mongolia, just as empty (but more hilly) in this direction, on the edge of the Gobi desert. People do not come here by chance, and besides, they do not come at all, because rare are the teams invited to pass through the doors of the complex, managed by the military. The press? Don’t think about it. Especially since the PLA (People’s Liberation Army, it.

The site itself is divided into two complexes separated by the Ruoshui River. In the North, there are two former launch sites, which are more or less abandoned (one of the two was once an amusement park but also seems deserted) but also monitoring facilities. Near the river, there is the center with the housing, management, part of the technical centers, and to the south, modern launch facilities with two classic launch sites and modular facilities (to accommodate, for example, certain launchers of small satellites that take off via truck platforms).

It’s not as big as Baikonur, nor as dense in business as Cape Canaveral, but Jiuquan is home to more than a dozen orbital take-offs, at least as many military tests each year (the country is developing its ballistic capabilities enormously) and experimental firing to qualify civil and military programs for hypersonic flight at Mach 5 and above.

Jiuquan wrote Chinese space history

It is from the Jiuquan site (also called base n ° 20) that the very first Chinese satellite Dong Fang Heng-1 (or DFH-1) took off on April 24, 1970, successfully completing almost five years of work … and getting it right the first time! This take-off marks the birth of the “Long March” launchers (Chang Zheng or CZ in Chinese) whose generations have followed one another since then. Not all versions take off from the Jiuquan site, whose position in northern China is not appropriate for certain orbits. The site, located at 40 ° North, does not allow for example (without a waste of unnecessary energy) to target the geostationary “belt”. It is however very useful for low and polar orbits. In Jiuquan, the teams can be discreet and several take-offs were only announced a few days before.

For the past 20 years, Jiuquan has mainly hosted launches of the Longue Marche 2C, 2D, 2F and 4B families. Each variant has its technical specificities and the nature of the satellites which leave for orbit is not always revealed (according to the formula, a satellite dedicated to “observation of cultures” is generally an observation unit for defense. Chinese).

Jiuquan, the new cradle of human space flights

If all Chinese know Jiuquan, it is because the site has become very famous thanks to the Chinese astronautical program. The “taikonauts”, if we keep their national prefix, indeed take off from the desert site, via dedicated installations on a particular launch pad adapted to CZ-2F and especially to the Shenzhou capsule.

On October 15, 2003, after an intense program of test flights, Yang Liwei became the first Chinese to pass the Karman Line and reach orbit with Shenzhou 5, taking off from Jiuquan. The flight will pass close to disaster due to vibration concerns, but the Shenzhou manned program has already written its first letters of nobility! Until 2016, six other Chinese Shenzhou missions all took off from Jiuquan, along with other vehicles related to the manned program, such as the two experimental space stations Tiangong 1 (2011) and Tiangong-2 (2016). The traditional return site for Chinese inhabited capsules is also in the Gobi Desert, and is not far from Jiuquan.

The Chinese manned flight sector is evolving, and it is not known today whether the national astronauts will continue to take off from the desert (the Wenchang site, adapted for more powerful launchers and located on the island of Hainan has on the rise). However at least one mission should take place in 2021, and Shenzhou 12 is scheduled to take off in Jiuquan. There was no question of abandoning base 20, however, even if the astronauts moved one day. A semi-official rumor reports work this year to adapt the launch site and the CZ-2F rocket to take off a small robotic space shuttle, with capacities substantially identical to that of the American defense, X-37B.

NewSpace settles in the desert

The sector of small Chinese private launchers, supported by the government and by technological transfers from the military, has been booming since 2016. Their westernized names are very similar: Expace (supported by a large group), LandSpace, ISpace, OneSpace, LinkSpace … But these are startups who dream of offering the gigantic Chinese space market new low-cost possibilities to reach orbit. In Jiuquan, the authorities welcomed them with open arms! Assembly hangar, modular empty launch site, monitoring facilities… The majority of them, who do not need large infrastructures to launch their rockets, have responded. In Jiuquan,

The “North base” has thus become one of the essential meeting places for the inaugural flights of small launchers. Enough to perpetuate the historic base of Jiuquan!

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