China begins construction of its fifth rocket launch site

A model of the Long March-5 Y5 rocket in Beijing on March 3, 2021. - Reuters

BEIJING (Reuters): A port city in eastern China has launched an ambitious plan to build the country's fifth rocket launch site, under a longer-term goal to ramp up space infrastructure to meet the demands of an expected boom in commercial missions.

An engineering company in eastern Zhejiang province won a tender on April 1 to construct the launch pad in Ningbo city, as well as a section of the command centre and an assembly and testing facility, according to a document posted on the website of the Ningbo Free Trade Zone.

As part of the Zhejiang government's infrastructure plans for 2021-2025, Ningbo will invest 20 billion yuan ($3 billion) in a rocket launch centre in the county of Xiangshan, or "Elephant Hill".

The centre will be capable of launching 100 missions a year.

According to media, Xiangshan has a favourable latitude for rocket launches, comparable to Cape Canaveral, home of the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

In the next five to 10 years, China envisions massive constellations of commercial satellites that can offer services ranging from high-speed internet for aircraft to tracking coal shipments.

To meet the demand for launches, China will have to build bigger rockets that can carry more satellites or build more launch sites, or both. China currently has four launch sites - three inland and one on the southern island of Hainan.

China launched 39 missions in 2020, including an unmanned probe to Mars, and is expected to see more than 40 launches this year, according to state media.

China may launch more than 1,000 low-Earth orbit satellites in coming years, the state-run Global Times reported on Wednesday, citing a space industry expert.

The Long March-5, China's largest rocket, is capable of transporting 60 satellites at a time, the expert said.

The comparatively low threshold for building spacecraft launch sites will lure more provinces to plan similar projects, the Global Times added.

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