A mysterious explosion at the Jiuquan space center

Jiuquan Space Center (JSLC or 酒泉卫星发射中心) is one of four launch centers in China. Located in the Inner Mongolia region, it is known for the manned launches of Shenzhou ships. In recent years, it has undergone a series of changes to expand its operations, as in the rest of the country’s space centers. Indeed, in addition to the two launch pads dedicated to Long March rockets (CZ-2F, CZ-2C, CZ-2D, CZ-4B and CZ-4C) of the state giant CASC, called SLS-1 and SLS-2 —also known as Complexes 921 (LC-43/91) and 603 (LC-43/94), respectively—adjacent to the large vertical assembly building we usually associate with this space center, new ramps have recently been built off the Jiuquan space center traditional compound. A few years ago, ramps 95A and 95B, located about five kilometers from the main SLS-1/2 complex, were built for launching small commercial solid-fuel rockets that can be transported by TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher), such as the Kuaizhou 1 (KZ-1), Hyperbola 1 (SQX-1), Ceres 1, OS-M1 or Jielong 1.

The CASIC facility in Jiuquan before and after the October 2021 explosion (CNES/Airbus/Harry Stranger).

In addition, in 2019 the aerospace giant CASIC completed an assembly and launch complex about 16 kilometers southwest of the main hub. For those who do not know the intricate world of the Chinese space program, CASIC and CASC may seem the same, but in reality they are two different state corporations on an equal footing. While CASC (China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation中国航天科技集团有限公司) is the corporation in charge of the vast majority of space activities —building Long March rockets (through CALT), government satellites, manned spacecraft, etc.—, CASIC (China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, 中国航天科工集团有限公司) barely has a presence in the space world, but is a key contractor for the military. However, for some time now, CASIC has wanted to fully enter the space sector and has a series of ambitious plans to develop everything from satellites to its own launchers. Of course, the CASIC launchers are at the moment very far from the CALT/CASC Long March family. Its main launcher has been the Kuaizhou 1 and its Kuaizhou 1A variant (快舟一号/KZ-1 and (快舟一号甲/KZ-1A), based on the DF-21 medium-range missile and which has been launched on 14 occasions between 2012 and 2021.

Jiuquan ramps and facilities. The traditional launch site for Shenzhou missions and Long March rockets is above (SLS-1/2) (Google Earth).

In fact, in 2019 CASIC launched two KZ-1As from Taiyuan less than a day apart. However, in 2020 and 2021 this launcher suffered two failures and, since then, it has not flown again. But CASIC wants the Kuaizhou to take off more often and in 2019 completed an integration and launch complex in Jiuquan, located about 16 kilometers from the CASC facility. This new launch center was to be dedicated mainly to the Kuaizhou 11 (快舟十一号), a solid fuel launcher based on the DF-31 intercontinental missile and which is offered on the market, like the Kuaizhou, through the subsidiary company of CASIC Expace. While the Kuaizhou 1 and 1A can place about 200kg into a polar orbit, the Kuaizhou 11 is capable of placing a tonne in this type of orbit, which is not bad at all for a microlauncher. Unfortunately, the first mission of this vector in 2020 was a failure. For now, the new facility in Jiuquan has not been used, although more Kuaizhou were scheduled to take off last year. No one knew what had happened to these launchers, but recently Harry Stranger posted on Twitter some images of the Jiuquan center taken by Pléiades satellites in which it could be clearly seen that the Kuaizhu launch center had suffered a major explosion between October 10 and 17, 2021.

The new CASIC launch and integration center in Jiuquan (CASIC).
Kuaizhou 1A (chinaspaceflight.com).
Kuaizhou 1A (chinaspaceflight.com).
The KZ-11 on its TEL (Expace).
KZ-11 data (Expace/Weibo).

What happened? Officially, nothing is known, although everything indicates that a rocket exploded at the new Jiuquan ramp last year. Or perhaps it was an explosion during some test of solid fuel engines, since it is not clear that the new integration building will also serve as a ramp (although this option is the most likely). Whatever the cause, the fact is that part of the mobile hangar suffered significant damage. In short, a new setback for CASIC and its Kuaizhou. It is clear that CASC’s rival space projects are proving more resistant than expected.

On the other hand, these facilities are not the only new ones in Jiuquan. The private company LandSpace (蓝箭航天) built between 2020 and 2021 a relevant integration center along with a nearby launch pad. This new complex will be dedicated to the Zhuque 2 (ZQ-2 or (朱雀二号) and Zhuque 2A rockets, capable of placing 4 and 6 tons in low orbit (LEO), respectively. The Zhuque 2 is due to debut this year and, therefore, At the moment, this launcher is in a curious “competition” with Relativity Space’s Terran 1 microlauncher and SpaceX’s giant Starship system to see which is the first methane-fueled rocket to reach orbit. carry out numerous launches of its Zhuque from Jiuquan in the coming years.

LandSpace facility in Jiuquan for Zhuque rockets (CNES/Airbus/Harry Stranger).
Detail of the launch ramp (CNES/Airbus/Harry Stranger).
Zhuque family of methane launchers (except Zhuque 1): Zhuque 2 and 2A (LandSpace).
LandSpace’s Zhuque Integration Building (Kuaishou).

The ability of Chinese state-owned and private companies to build launch centers in record time is not only seen in Jiuquan. In Taiyuan CASC recently built a specific ramp for the new Long March CZ-6A, also equipped with a shock wave reduction system using water (something common in the United States and other space powers, but not in China). Similarly, in Taiyuan new facilities are being built and in the brand new center of Wenchang, the most modern, the imminent construction of several ramps dedicated to private launchers and some more for the heavy launchers of the CZ-5 family has been announced. 7/8. Paradoxically, the Wenchang center, despite being the most recent and the best located for LEO launches because it is located on Hainan Island, does not have much free land available for future expansion. This fact, added to the enormous demand for launches from the Chinese domestic market, suggests that the rest of the space centers still have some time left.

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