Space: The Lowest Cost Provider

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June 9, 2007: China's Long March satellite launcher recently had its 100th launch. That's over fifty in a row without a failure. By any standard, this is an excellent record. Part of it is due to China using a simpler, older, technology. It's big and cheap, and reliable. The second element is assistance received from American rocket engineering firms in 1996, after two spectacular launch failures. The U.S. firms involved were fined and censured by the American government for providing illegal technical assistance to the Chinese. But the Chinese got to keep the American technology.

Meanwhile, China is building on its success, and is completing the development of a larger version of the Long March, the CZ5. The new launcher will use a 120-ton thrust liquid-oxygen/kerosene engine, and a 50-ton hydrogen-oxygen engine that will enable it to put a 25 ton payload in a low orbit, or a 12 ton payload in a higher geosynchronous orbit. By keeping with simple rocket design, and copying from Russian and American technology, China is confident that their new rockets will work, and will be available on time (within three years). Given China's track record, their plan seems likely to succeed. This will make China an even more dominant player the satellite launching industry. The economics of satellite launching is pretty straightforward. The Space Shuttle is the most expensive way to get stuff into orbit. Satellites sent up via the Shuttle cost $25 million a ton. The Russians and Chinese will do it for $3-6 million a ton. China expects to grab over 20 percent of the launch market by being the lowest cost provider, and reliable as well.


 


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