Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on Oct 05, 2020
Pushing the envelope: China’s ship-based space launches On 15 September 2020, the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) pulled off another significant feat that went unnoticed by many observers of the Chinese space program, if not all. A Long March 11 Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) from a surface vessel at sea launched nine satellites. This was the second such launch following the first in June 2019 in which a Long March 11 rocket launched multiple satellites into space. China is the third such country following the United States of America (USA) and the Russian Federation to possess and confirm sea-based space launch capability. Beyond propelling the PRC into an exclusive club, the latest launch from a maritime orbital platform gives the considerable flexibility and safety to execute space launch missions at short notice. China has several reasons to be satisfied with the successful launch from marine platforms. Offshore launches have at least proffer three specific benefits for the PRC. The first key advantage is that it helps render Chinese satellite launches safer. The safety of population centers being threatened by rocket stages falling to the ground following lift-off and during flight through the atmosphere was an important determining factor for China’s space managers to shift space launches to the maritime domain. Three of China’s major on-shore space launch ports are located inland namely at Jiuquan in Northwest China, Taiyuan in Northern China and Xichang in the Southwest. The PRC has a lone spaceport on the coast at Wenchang on the island of Hainan. Several population centers are located in fairly close proximity to especially the inland space facilities and space launches present a hazard to human habitations. Secondly, since mainland China is located well north of the equator in the latitude of the Tropic of Cancer or rather it runs through the extreme southern reaches of China, space launches tend to be more demanding requiring more powerful rockets necessitating substantial fuel (see Map). Off-shore launches limit the fuel consumption as the launch platform being a ship can be maneuvered closer to the equator where the earth spins at a faster rate allowing the space rockets to gain extra velocity and momentum. Consequently, this obviates the need to use more fuel to power the rocket as it hurtles through the atmosphere. Finally, sea-based launches have brought greater flexibility to the PRC’s space launch vehicles. Ship-borne launches reduce stress on the PRC’s land-based space ports giving greater capacity to the country’s space launch programme. They also help distribute burden and expand options for the pursuit of quicker missions or missions that are time-sensitive. A corollary to this point is that the PRC can potentially undertake ship-based space launches in the event of a national crisis such as war. Taken together, it should be unsurprising why China is pursuing sea-based launches. Source: Maps of the World

Implications for India   

What implications might the PRC’s marine space launches hold for India? There are lessons for the Indian space programme to the extent that the PRC has demonstrated and confirmed a ship-based launch capacity in meeting or servicing a variety of demands extending from the commercial and civilian to the military. Maritime space launches help free up some capacity at land-based space launch stations. Beyond this, India or the managers of India’s space programme might not see an obvious incentive or let alone great urgency in developing a sea-based launch capability largely because existing land-based facilities at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh and at the emerging and under development space launch pad at Tuticorin in Coastal Tamilnadu. To be sure, the latter space launch facility once established will primarily launch payloads of 500 kilograms aboard India’s Small Space Launch Vehicle (SSLV), which is still in the final stages of development. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K. Sivan observed in December 2019 that the initial SSLV launches will happen from Sriharikota and thereafter launches moved to Tuticorin and depending upon demand larger SLVs could also lift-off with potentially bigger payloads in the future. The ISRO Chairman’ point about demand is instructive in that only if India’s land-based facilities are overwhelmed by demand will ISRO consider, although speculatively, the pursuit of a maritime orbital launch capability. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest publicly to that ISRO will need to pursue ship borne launches not simply because of a lack of demand, but equally due to geography. India, especially peninsular India is a boon for space launches as it is located, albeit still in the latitude of the Tropic of Cancer, which runs through northern India, yet closer to the equator than is mainland China (See map). As observed earlier proximity to the equator makes space launches more efficient. Further, unlike China, India simply does not have any space launch pads located in-land close to India’s population zones. Consequently, the imperative, as of today to secure an ocean-borne launch capability is still limited for New Delhi. In a nutshell, New Delhi need not be concerned, let alone fret about China’s twin successes in launching multiple payloads from a surface platform at sea. The only obvious rationale for the ISRO to undertake a ship-borne space launch vehicle programme is if Indian space managers can demonstrably ascertain and prove that a marine-based orbital launch capacity brings greater efficiency both in fuel, technology or a general reduction in launch costs as opposed to land-based launch facilities. However, ISRO would be well advised to conduct a preliminary study exploring the feasibility covering benefits and liabilities and imperatives for an oceanic space launch platform. After all, despite the lack of any existing urgency and for the factors stated above, for reasons of flexibility that could be advantageous in a crisis or war and the pressure accruing from commercial demand, the Indian space agency should consider developing ship-borne capabilities in the long run.
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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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