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China Claims Breakthrough That Dramatically Extends Orbital Lifespan of Rockets

Researchers at the Chinese rocket academy are close to developing a new, more efficient type of cryogenic engine.

The Long March 5 Y2 rocket at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center on June 26, 2017. (Image Credit: Huang Zhu/Wikimedia Commons)
The Long March 5 Y2 rocket at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center on June 26, 2017. (Image Credit: Huang Zhu/Wikimedia Commons)

China is working on the development of a new type of cryogenic engine capable of sustaining launch vehicles in space for an extended period of time. If the country succeeds in perfecting the design of the new engine, it will be able to build more powerful rockets that can stay in outer space for longer periods, consuming less fuel and boosting payload capacity.

According to a report in the English language website of the state-owned China News Service, engineers and scientists at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Services in Beijing have made a breakthrough in the insulation method used for cryogenic engines which reduces the evaporation of fuel and extends the lifespan of rockets in space.

The leap in rocket technology is expected to lend support to future Chinese missions in space. After landing on the far side of the moon earlier this year, China plans on putting a space station in orbit within the next three years and is also simultaneously working to send exploration probes to nearby bodies in the solar system.

What Are Cryogenic Engines?

Cryogenic engines make use of liquid fuel like liquid hydrogen or liquid oxygen for rocket propulsion. Liquid fuels are cheaper and provide better thrust to launch vehicles as compared to solid-state propellants. These engines are capable of working at low temperatures, reducing fuel evaporation compared to traditional engines. They’re also non-pollutant and non-toxic.

The technology currently in use on these engines has so far been unable to further lower the evaporation of fuel during spaceflight. This has led to the development of bigger rockets for longer missions in space since long missions require more fuel, reports China News Service.

However, the new methods of insulation being developed by the Chinese could change that by allowing for longer missions that use far less fuel. They would also help Chinese rockets conduct complex maneuvers while in orbit, and provide them with the technology needed for deep space exploration.

What Innovations Have the Chinese Made to Cryogenic Engines?

Researchers at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Services claim they are using a new kind of polyurethane foaming in the fuel containers used in rockets that increase insulation capacity by 50 percent compared to other materials. They also say that using an optimized method to control loss of propellants could reduce fuel evaporation even further.

According to the Chinese state-owned news agency, the new techniques lower the evaporation of fuel in rocket engines to 0.5 from 2.5 percent, a decrease of more than 400 percent compared to traditional systems. The current technology only allows rockets to stay in orbit for a few hours, whereas rockets powered by new cryogenic engines could stay in space for up to 30 days.

Cryogenic engines are currently used on Delta IV rockets in the United States and Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets of the Chinese. The Russians, the French, and the Japanese also use cryogenic technology. In September 2016, India became the sixth country in the world to carry out a cryogenic engine test.

As the United States, China, and India look to compete for prestige in space by launching expeditions to the farthest reaches of the solar system, the developments in rocket technology could provide the Chinese with the technical edge they need to leapfrog ahead of the United States as the leading space power in the world.

Usman Kabir covers science, space, and technology for Globely News. As a kid, he would make models of the solar system and take part in water rocket competitions. His childhood obsession has led him to a degree in Space Science. Usman likes to spend his free time watching reruns of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Seinfeld."

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