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China’s Long March 7 rocket and Tianzhou 1 cargo spacecraft seen on April 17, 2017. (Picture: China Daily)

How China plans to challenge SpaceX with reusable rockets

State contractor says its first reusable rocket could come in two years

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

From Elon Musk’s SpaceX to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, US companies are pumping billions of dollars into developing reusable rockets that can safely return to Earth -- and then take off again later.

Now China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation -- the country’s state-run space contractor -- has thrown its hat into the ring, announcing plans to launch its first reusable rocket as early as 2020, according to state media.
China’s Long March 7 rocket and Tianzhou 1 cargo spacecraft seen on April 17, 2017. (Picture: China Daily)

For decades, sending rockets into space was extremely expensive. Launch vehicles cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build -- but they can only fly once, burning up during their return to Earth. The ability to reuse rocket components is essential to driving down costs.

SpaceX has been experimenting with various ways to recover rocket parts -- from landing boosters vertically on drone ships, to using a net to capture the top part of a rocket, known as fairing.
Launching a rocket with recyclable parts would be a significant milestone for China’s ambitious space program, which has had both successes and failures. The country’s most powerful rocket model to date, the Long March 5, launched successfully in 2016, but fell into the ocean during a second attempt last summer.

Chinese space station crashes back to Earth

China’s first reusable rocket is slated to be the Long March 8. And its larger successor, Long March 9, aims to be one of the world’s most powerful within 10 years. It would allow China to take heavier and more advanced cargo to space, such as military satellites.

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