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Static Fire Test Failure Launches Space Pioneer's Tianlong 3 Rocket

A static-fire test of the Tianlong-3 ended in catastrophic failure, accidental launch, and massive explosion

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Sun Jun 30 2024Written by Zac Aubert

Chinese commercial space company Space Pioneer conducted a static-fire test of the Tianlong-3 first stage at a test facility in Gongyi county, Henan province, the test ended in catastrophic failure, accidental launch and massive explosion

Amateur footage captured by Gongyi citizens and posted on Chinese social media shows the nine-engine test stage igniting and unexpectedly taking off.

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Typically, hold-down clamps and other structures are used to securely keep stages in place during such tests. However, the stage is seen climbing into the sky before halting, apparently due to engine shutdown, and then returning to Earth.

The stage impacted the ground around 50 seconds after takeoff, seemingly with much of its kerosene-liquid oxygen propellant remaining, causing a large explosion.

The Tianlong-3 first stage would likely fire for several minutes during an actual orbital flight.

Space Pioneer was conducting this test as a precursor to an orbital launch of the Tianlong-3, which is benchmarked against SpaceX's Falcon 9, in the coming months. The company announced earlier this month that it had secured $207 million in new funding.

Shanghai-based digital newspaper The Paper reported that Henan officials stated there were no casualties.

Space Pioneer has issued a statement confirming a structural failure at the connection between the rocket body and the test bench. The company's statement noted, "The rocket’s onboard computer automatically shut down the engines and the rocket fell 1.5 kilometers southwest. No casualties were found." The test reportedly produced 820 tons of thrust.

Static-fire testing is a common part of rocket development or pre-launch procedures, and issues are not uncommon during development. For example, a SpaceX Starship prototype exploded following a static-fire test in 2020. However, an event in which the stage escapes its hold-downs and launches is extremely rare.

The orbital launch attempt for Tianlong-3 was expected to take place at new commercial launch facilities near the Wenchang spaceport on Hainan Island. This launch could now face significant delays.

This incident follows China's high-profile success of returning the first-ever lunar far side samples to Earth with Chang’e-6 and another incident involving a hypergolic rocket stage falling over a populated area. It remains unclear how this event will affect Space Pioneer in terms of delays, penalties, and its continued operations. The company has stated it will conduct an analysis and restart testing with new hardware as soon as possible.

The broader impacts on China’s commercial space sector, which has been receiving increasing support from central, provincial, and city governments, are also yet to be seen.

In 2019, China issued policy guidelines and regulations on the development of commercial launch vehicles in the country. Space Pioneer became the first Chinese commercial launch company to reach orbit with its Tianlong-2 rocket in 2023.

The Tianlong-3 is significantly larger, with a diameter of 3.8 meters and a takeoff mass of 590 tons. It is designed to lift 17 tons of payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) or 14 tons to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.

Delays to Tianlong-3, which is intended to be reusable, could affect Chinese megaconstellation plans.