After United States, China is all set to develop a new generation of rockets that can be released into space from an aircraft, a senior official has said. The world’s first air-launched space mission was undertaken by the US in 1990. Former Orbital Sciences Corp developed a Pegasus rocket, which was launched from a refitted B-52 strategic bomber that sent two small satellite into the orbit.
Since the first launch, US has carried out 43 Pegasus missions and the most recent one was launched in December last year.
Li Tongyu, the head of carrier rocket development at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, said that the air-launched rockets can replace dysfunctional satellites or in cases of disaster relief, quickly send up Earth observation satellites to assist in the effort.
He said that a model capable of sending a payload of about 100 kilograms into low Earth orbit has been designed by engineers at the academy, which is the main developer of Chinese carrier rockets. They have plans to build a larger rocket that could carry 200 kg into orbit.
“The Y-20 strategic transport plane will be the carrier of these rockets. The jet will hold a rocket within its fuselage and release it at a certain altitude. The rocket will be ignited after it leaves the plane,” Li was quoted as saying by state-run China Daily.
According to experts, large satellites will still have to be put into orbit with conventional rockets.
The Y-20, China’s first domestically developed heavy-lift transport plane, was delivered to the Chinese Air Force from July. The plane a maximum take-off weight of more than 200 metric tons and a maximum payload of about 66 tons, the Daily quoted aviation experts as saying.
In comparison to the land-based liquid-fuelled rockets, where preparation can take days, weeks or longer, in part because it takes so much time to pump in the fuel, the solid-fuel rockets can be launched from planes much faster.
Long Lehao, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said each mission involving a solid-fuel rocket launched by a Y-20 would take only 12 hours of preparation to place a 200 kg satellite into a sun-synchronous orbit 700 km above Earth.
Other advantages of such rockets are that they are flexible in deployment and do not need ground infrastructure, Pang Zhihao, executive editor-in-chief of Space International magazine said.
They also are less susceptible to bad weather and launch costs are lower than those of ground-launched rockets, he added.
Several US space companies, including Virgin Galactic and Generation Orbit Launch Services, are developing air-launched rockets, the Daily report said.
(With inputs from PTI)