Chinese Clone of Space X's Falcon 9 Rocket Has a Major Mishap

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

A Chinese rocket company with the somewhat ironic name of Space Pioneer had a bit of a mishap over the weekend. They were doing a static fire test of there Tianlong-3 rocket when something went very wrong. 

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A static fire test means the rocket is bolted down to a launch stand so that it can't liftoff. But the Tianlong-3 somehow broke loose and launched itself into the air. Then its engines shut off an the rocket fell back to earth and exploded.

That is one very large crater.

Here's the company's description of what happened here.

“Due to the structural failure of the connection between the rocket body and the test platform, the first-stage rocket was separated from the launch pad,” Space Pioneer, also known as Beijing Tianbing Technology, said.

“After liftoff, the onboard computer was automatically shut down, and the rocket fell into the deep mountains 1.5 kilometers [0.9 miles] southwest of the test platform. The rocket body fell into the mountain and disintegrated.”

There were no injuries as a result of the crash, the company said, as people in the area were evacuated in advance of the rocket test.

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Obviously not everyone was evacuated since there are at least two videos circulating made by random people who were filming the static fire test with their phones. Here's another angle.

An Australian astrophysicist said these sorts of static fire tests are very common and he's only aware of one previous failure like this one.

“It’s so common that it’s a surprise that this sort of failure occurred,” Dr. Tucker said, adding that the only other comparable accident he was aware of occurred in 1952 when a U.S. Viking 8 rocket broke free during a static fire test and landed in the desert five miles away.

“Multiple things probably would have had to go wrong for this failure to happen the way it did,” Dr. Tucker said, adding that although China’s national space program was advanced, its commercial space industry is fairly young.

The backstory here is that this company is doing its best to build a clone of Space X's Falcon 9 rocket. The Tianlong-3 is basically the same size, uses the same fuel, has the same number of engines, the same type of landing legs and even the grid fins. Space Pioneer isn't doing much pioneering on this.

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The reason there's a demand for a reusable Falcon 9 clone is because China is also trying to clone of Space X's Starlink network of satellites

China has outlined plans for two separate low Earth orbit communications megaconstellations in response to projects including SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb. These are the national Guowang project, or SatNet, consisting of around 13,000 satellites, and the Shanghai-backed G60 Starlink initiative, which raised 6.7 billion yuan ($943 million) early this year. More than a hundred are planned for launch this year, but thousands will need to be in place in the coming years in order to secure use of frequencies...

The report notes that China needs to act fast before low Earth orbit is saturated by other actors in terms of spacecraft in orbit and frequencies claimed and used. Noting the dominance achieved by SpaceX and its reusable rockets over the past decade, this approach is seen as meeting new demands requiring China to expand its launch capacity, while still meeting needs for existing national civil, military, science and deep space missions.

In order to lay claim to a certain amount of bandwidth, China has to get these satellites into orbit fairly soon.

For Guowang, China will need to launch the first satellites using all the frequencies to be brought into use by 2027, and launch 10% of the total number of satellites launched by September 2029. Half of the satellites for the constellation will need to be launched by September 2032. Deployment of the constellation is to be completed two years later.

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Will China be able to make these deadlines? I suspect they will. As is so often the case, they have the advantage of copying someone else's work. But as this particular test shows, even that isn't always enough to guarantee success.

 Here's a more detailed look at this rocket and what happened during this static fire test.


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Jazz Shaw 1:00 PM | July 14, 2024
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