Wenchang Space Launch Centre

China’s fourth and newest spaceport, capable of supporting the next-generation CZ-5 and CZ-7 launch vehicles. Operational since 2016.

Other name: Hainan Space Launch Site. Location: Wenchang, Hainan Province. Subordinate to: Equipment and Development Department of the Central Military Commission. Activation: 2016. Status: Operational

Overview

The Wenchang Space Launch Centre is located on Hainan, China’s southernmost province and a subtropical island in the South China Sea. The island is separated from China mainland in the north by the Qiongzhou Strait, and Vietnam in the west by the Gulf of Tongking. The City of Wenchang is located on the northeast corner of the island, covering a region of 2,403 square kilometres with 207 km coastline.

The launch complexes and technical centre are situated inside the jurisdiction of Longlou Town, about 20 km northeast of Wenchang city and only 1 km from the coast. The Launch Mission Command and Control Centre (LMCCC) is situated in the Wenchang town centre. Two tracking stations are situated in Tongguling, Wenchang and the Xisha Islands. The administrative headquarters and main living area of the space centre are situated in Haikou, the capital city of Hainan Island.

The geographic location of the Wenchang Space Launch Centre offered a number of advantages over China’s three inland space launch centres:

The proximity of the launch centre to the equator (19° N) gives the launch vehicle a performance boost gained from the Earth’s rotational speed. This effective reduces the amount of propellants required for the satellite’s manoeuvre from the transit orbit to GEO, thus increasing its service life by up to three years.

The coastal location of the launch centre allows larger rocket booster segments to be transported to the launch centre by sea. In contrast, all three existing launch centres in China can only receive rocket boosters by railway, which limits the size of the rocket to 3.35 m in diameter.

The launch vehicle taking off from the space centre can fly to the southeast direction into the South Pacific, avoiding the possibility of rocket debris falling into any populated area.

History

Chinese rocket scientists have long envisaged launching spacecraft from a location near the equator in order to take advantage of Earth rotational speed gain. The idea of building a satellite launch site on Hainan Island was first raised in the 1970s. However, it was deemed too risky to place such a valuable asset on an island in the South China Sea, where both the United States and the Soviet Union had strong military presence during the Cold War era.

With the end of Cold War and the improving relations with the neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, the idea of a launch site on Hainan Island resurfaced and was widely discussed within the academia circle. This led to the construction of a sounding rocket launch facility in the northwest part of the island, with five successful suborbital launches conducted since 1988. Preliminary studies on the feasibility of a satellite launch site on the island were initiated in 1994, with the findings submitted to the State Council in 1996.

Since the late 1990s, the local government of Hainan Province has been actively lobbying the central government and military for a satellite launch site to be constructed on the island, in a hope that it would boost local economy and tourism. The Chinese space industry was also very much in favour of a new launch site with better living conditions and greater connection to industrial and population centres, to replace the existing Xichang Satellite Launch Centre (XSLC), which was built during the Cold War era in the deep mountains of Sichuan Province.

A number of locations on the island were considered, with Wenchang, a small town located in the southeast corner of the island, regarded the most suitable site. Feasibility studies and conceptual design of the new launch centre were completed in 2005. The State Council and the Central Military Commission (CMC) finally gave go-ahead to the construction of the launch site in August 2007.  A formal ground-breaking ceremony for the launch centre took place on 14 September 2009.

By 2014 construction of the two launch pads, two vehicle assembly buildings, and other launch support facilities were all near completion. A CZ-7 ground test vehicle was delivered to the launch centre by two seagoing cargo ships in December 2014 for a simulated launch campaign walkthrough. This was followed by a simulated CZ-5 launch campaign in September 2015. The inaugural launch took place on 25 June 2016, with the successful launch of a CZ-7 launch vehicle from Launch Complex 201.

Facilities

CZ-5 Launch Complex

The launch complex for the heavy-load CZ-5 consists of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) codenamed “501” and the launch pad codenamed “101”.

The VAB is a 15-storey (14 above ground and 1 underground), 99.4 m-high building designed to assemble the launch vehicle and its payload. The assembled launch vehicle and spacecraft stack is then rolled out to the launch pad in a vertical position atop a mobile launcher platform (MLP), which also has 6 swing arms to provide electrical, hydraulic, environmental control, and other support functions to the vehicle through umbilical lines. The mobile launch platforms move on a 20 m-wide, 2,800 m long rail track between the VAB and launch pad, and it takes about 3 hours for the platform to move from one end to the other.

Pad 101 consists of a fixed umbilical tower, underground flame deflector trenches and ducts, and four lightning rods. The umbilical tower is steel and reinforced concrete structure, with swing arms and rotating platforms to allow technicians to access and inspect the launch vehicle stack. It is also the first Chinese launch pad to feature a Sound Suppression System, which sprays large volumes of water over the launcher platform and into the flame deflector trenches below it to dampen sound waves generated by the rocket engines, and also discouraged fires that might be caused by the rocket exhaust.

CZ-7 Launch Complex

The launch complex to support the medium-load CZ-7 consists of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) codenamed “502” and the launch pad codenamed “201”. They are generally similar to those of the CZ-5 launch complex, except marginally lower in height: the VAB is 96.6 m in height, and the umbilical tower is 85.8 m in height. The CZ-7 MLP shares the same rail track with the CZ-5 MLP for most part of its rollout journey, which means that the CZ-7 MLP needs to make four 60° turns before reaching the pad.

CZ-9 Launch Complex

In the second phase of the launch centre construction project, a new larger launch complex will be built to support the super heavy-load CZ-9 launch vehicle.

Technical Area

The two VABs are connected by a common Launch Vehicle Horizontal Checkout Building, where the launch vehicle segments are initially received and prepared before being assembled inside the VAB. Nearby locates the spacecraft checkout building, spacecraft fuelling workshop, launch control console, and 110 kV electrical substation.

Rocket booster and large spacecraft components are transported from their manufacturing facilities in the northern coastal city of Tianjin by two specially-designed 9,000 t displacement cargo ships (Yuanwang 21 and 22) to the nearby Qinglan Seaport, and then by overland road to the Technical Area, where they are prepared, tested, and assembled.

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