The CAS Space Zhongke-1A, an all-solid four-stage small to medium-lift launch vehicle, made its first-ever launch at 04:12 UTC on Wednesday, July 27. The rocket successfully flew from Jiuquan in the remote Inner Mongolia desert region of northwest China.
CAS Space, also known as Zhongke Aerospace, is a spinoff company partially owned by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The company developed the Zhongke-1A vehicle, also known as the ZK-1A or Lijian-1, based on the existing DF-31 road-mobile ICBM. This is one of several Chinese launch vehicles with solid-fueled ICBM heritage.
The Zhongke-1A is in a similar class of vehicle to the European Space Agency’s Vega launcher, and can reportedly launch up to between 1.33 to 1.5 tons to a sun-synchronous polar orbit. The rocket is also said to be able to launch up to two tons to a low earth orbit and is the largest Chinese solid-fueled launch vehicle to date.
Zhongke-1A is 2.65 meters in diameter and 31 meters in height. The rocket also weighs 135 tons at liftoff, with 200 tons of thrust. These figures are fairly similar to the original ESA Vega vehicle, and the payload capacity to sun-synchronous and low earth orbits is also similar to the European rocket, now superseded by the upgraded Vega-C.
A new launch pad at Site 130 in Jiuquan was built specifically for the Zhongke rockets. This site has a building where the Zhongke-1A’s road-mobile ICBM heritage large wheeled transporter leaves the rocket behind. The rocket is processed in that building and then erected before liftoff.
Jiuquan was China’s first space launch site. China’s first satellite was launched from Jiuquan on April 24, 1970, and all crewed Shenzhou missions have also flown from this site. The 2800 square kilometer Jiuquan site currently also launches other solid-fueled orbital rockets like the Kuaizhou-1A, Ceres-1, and Hyperbola-1.
The maiden launch of the Zhongke-1A was manifested with six satellites. Initially, there were conflicting reports on exactly how many there were on board, but the latest information has confirmed the number of satellites.
The main payload is known to be SATech-01, also known as SY-01. This spacecraft is a new space technology test satellite that arrived in Jiuquan for launch processing on May 10. The ground crew tasked with processing the satellite had to undergo a 14-day quarantine due to the latest strain of COVID and associated lockdowns in China, and they completed their work at the launch site after they finished the quarantine.
SATech-01 features the High Energy Burst Searcher (HEBS) as an important payload. This instrument is designed to monitor gamma-ray bursts associated with gravitational wave events such as colliding black holes. Several other technology exploration instruments are aboard this satellite, and its sun-synchronous orbit allows earth observation experiments to be carried out if these are aboard.
Five smaller microsatellites also were included as part of Zhongke-1A’s payload. The Huawan-Nanyue Kexue science satellite, the Chuangxin-15 satellite, 2 electromagnetism research satellites, and a GNSS atmospheric density measurement satellite were included in the mission. One of the microsatellites reportedly had a quantum key on board, as part of China’s work on developing quantum communications.
The Nanyue Kexue satellite was named after a technology school in Guangzhou, and fifty teachers and students from that school reportedly were scheduled to be on hand for the launch.
CAS Space, headquartered in Guangzhou, is planning to fly a medium-lift rocket known as the ZK-2 with a core similar to the ZK-1A plus two solid rocket boosters with the same width as the core. The first flight could occur at the end of the year if everything goes as planned. A ZK-3 small liquid launcher with greater capability to SSO is also being developed.
The company is also developing the VTVL (vertical takeoff/vertical landing) ZK-4, ZK-4A, and ZK-5 rockets with liquid-fueled engines and the ZK-6 suborbital space tourist rocket. The ZK-6 has a marked similarity to Blue Origin’s New Shepard, while the ZK-4A and ZK-4 bear some resemblance to the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, respectively.
Today’s launch of the ZK-1A is the latest in a series of launches and developments by the rising Chinese commercial space sector, as part of the country’s plan to develop a powerful space sector.
(Lead photo: Zhongke-1A lifts off from Jiuquan)