China: Space rocket explodes in flames after accidental launch

A space rocket belonging to a Chinese private company crashed and exploded into flames near a city on Sunday after accidentally launching during a test. Beijing Tianbing, also known as Space Pioneer, stated on its official WeChat account that the Tianlong-3 rocket’s first stage left the launch pad due to a structural failure at the connection between the rocket and the test stand. The rocket landed in a hilly area near the city of Gongyi in central China.

Video footage from Chinese digital media outlet The Paper showed the rocket ascending before losing power, turning horizontally, falling back to earth, and exploding in flames on forested hills. An initial investigation revealed no casualties. Rocket parts scattered within a “safe area” caused a local fire, which has since been extinguished without injuries, according to the Gongyi emergency management bureau.

The two-stage Tianlong-3, or “Sky Dragon 3,” is a partly reusable rocket under development by Space Pioneer, one of several private-sector rocket makers that have rapidly expanded over the past five years. While falling rocket debris is not uncommon in China, it is rare for a developing rocket to make an unplanned flight and crash outside its test site.

Space Pioneer reported that the first stage of Tianlong-3 ignited normally during a hot test but detached from the test bench due to structural failure. Rockets typically consist of multiple stages, with the first stage propelling the rocket upwards until its fuel is exhausted, at which point it falls away and the second stage ignites to continue propulsion. Space Pioneer claims Tianlong-3’s performance is comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, another two-stage rocket.

In April 2023, Space Pioneer became the first private Chinese firm to launch a liquid-propellant rocket, the Tianlong-2, into space. Since 2014, when private investment in the industry was permitted by the state, Chinese commercial space companies have quickly entered the sector. Many firms started making satellites, while others, including Space Pioneer, focused on developing reusable rockets to reduce mission costs.

Test sites for these companies are often located along China’s coast for safety reasons, but some are situated inland, such as Space Pioneer’s test center in Gongyi, a city of 800,000 in Henan province.

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