CAS Space China rocket vertically
Engineers working for China's CAS Space have stepped up flight tests on a vertical-takoff-vertical-landing (VTVL) prototype rocket at sea. Image Credit: Screengrab | CAS Space

A Chinese rocket launch company has been testing sea platform landings as part of its effort to create reusable rockets similar to California-based Space X.

China’s CAS Space engineers have shown a video of a recent test flight of a jet-powered prototype rocket performing vertical-takeoff-vertical-landing (VTVL) manoeuvres on April 6, 2023. The ultimate aim: to send a variety of rockets to space — and back to be reused, thereby significantly cutting the cost of space flight.

The demonstrator rocket which is 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) tall and weighs 93 kilograms (205 pounds) was used by the team at CAS Space, a state-owned division of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

The test involves the launch and landing of the prototype to test guidance, navigation, and control systems, software, and communications.

Chinese media reported the event, which showed the small rocket taking off from the ground and landing in a boat — and vice versa — in Haiyang, in the Shandong Province of eastern China.

Vertical takeoff, vertical landing

CAS Space has been conducting tests with a vertical-takeoff-vertical-landing rocket prototype on a sea platform. In the recent test, the prototype reached an altitude of around 3,280 feet (1,000 metres) before touching back down on the sea platform, the company claimed.

The video shows the test flight lasted about 10 minutes. Similar tests have been performed by the company throughout the first few months of 2023, according to a media statement issued on April 4, 2023.

Fuel savings

A great amount of fuel can be saved by having a rocket's first stage land on a marine platform rather than on the ground near the launch site. This increases the amount of payload that a reusable rocket can carry.

This approach is already used by SpaceX, which routinely lands the first stages of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets on "drone ships" stationed at sea, hundreds of miles from their launch sites.

Space tourism

A CAS Space engineer told Chinese official broadcaster Global Times that the company might launch a near-space scientific experiment platform as early as the end-2023.

CAS Space plans to launch its own reusable orbital rockets as well as a sub-orbital rocket for space tourism in the future, similar to US company Blue Origin and its New Shepard rocket.

Reusable rocket makers

Other Chinese businesses are also working to build reusable rockets. The state-owned space contractor in China, CASC, as well as private companies Landspace and iSpace are building their own versions of reusable rockets.

Another business, Deep Blue Aerospace, tested a rocket-powered prototype in May 2022.

The first reusable rocket, invented by NASA's Space Shuttle program, was only partially reusable. It was designed to carry astronauts and payloads into low Earth orbit — but the external tank and solid rocket boosters were discarded and burned up in the atmosphere. It made a total of 135 flights from 1981 to 2011, when the programme was retired.

Space X, founded in 2002, has led the reusable rockets industry, while also cutting the cost of spaceflight.

Its Falcon 9 rocket returns to Earth intact after launching payloads into orbit, and can be refurbished and re-used for several more launches. In total, 37 recovered boosters have been refurbished and subsequently reflown at least a second time, with the leading boosters have flown 13 to 15 missions.

Space X has successfully launched and deployed numerous satellites for commercial customers. It has also contracted with NASA to send astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

Space X’s Starship — designed to be a fully reusable spacecraft for crewed missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond — is set to make its first maiden orbital flight next week.