An animation showing rocket stage separation above the Earth. CCTV
A Chinese rocket institute hosted a contest in August for launch vehicle recovery designs, which could potentially help inspire future innovative space research and development.
The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) held the competition in Beijing in early August, focusing on the cutting-edge technologies in launch vehicle recovery and gathering participants from professional research institutes, universities, organizations and interest groups, according to CCTV.
CALT is a rocket designer and manufacturer and a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the main contractor for the Chinese space programme. Its team incorporated artificial intelligence technology into its design, according to Gao Shijia, a researcher of a national key laboratory at the academy.
"Our design presents a way of intelligent and controllable recovery of launch vehicle, based on deep reinforcement learning. We used AI technology to make the launch vehicle acquire a set of control strategies through self-learning, and thus the controllable recovery is achieved," Gao said, with the concept seen in the video below.
Launch vehicle recovery design competition in China
Other ideas took inspiration from existing concepts such as four-rotor aircraft, to be combined with rocketry.
"Some ideas may be applicable to engineering practice while others are still in the conceptual design stage, which need to be gradually improved. The ideas provide inspirations in the professional fields of [rocket] recovery in China," said Ma Baohai, a senior launch model designer at CALT.
Ongoing Chinese reusability efforts
Both CALT and nominal rival, the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), also under CASC, are working towards reusable first stages for new and existing rockets.
The Long March 8, a medium-lift launcher designed to increase payload capabilities to Sun-synchronous orbits, is based on the existing Long March 7 with a similar 3.35-metre diameter core. Slated to debut around 2021, it will be capable of vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) and partially reusable.
SAST's Long March 6X will be based on the existing 29m-high Long March 6 small expendable launch vehicle and aim to slash launch costs by 30 percent, with a test flight expected in 2021.
Earlier this month CASC also used a parafoil on the payload fairing for the first time for the launch of the Haiyang-1C satellite, with the aim of improving accuracy of its return to Earth and potentially eventual reusability.
CASC has stated in a 2017 'space transportation roadmap' outlined last year that it is working towards reusability for all its launchers by the mid-2030s, but these efforts are in their infancy.
First footage of China using a parafoil for payload fairing reentry after satellite launch