The Great Escape: Chinese company accidentally launched a rocket during test

A static fire test of the first stage of the Tianlong-3 rocket built by China’s Space Pioneer has ended in a highly unusual accident. The stage literally flew off the stand and then crashed.

China’s richest space startup

Space Pioneer was founded in 2019. Unlike most other aerospace startups in the Celestial Empire, which typically start with solid-fueled launchers, the company has made a bid to build more sophisticated liquid-propellant rockets. In this field, it was successful. In April 2023, it managed to launch the Tianlong-2 rocket, which put a small experimental satellite into orbit. Thus Space Pioneer became not only the first Chinese company to build a liquid-propellant launch vehicle, but also the first private company in history to successfully launch a cargo into orbit using a liquid-propellant rocket on the first try. 

The design of the Tianlong-3 rocket. Source: Space Pioneer

After that, the company switched to the development of a more powerful Tianlong-3 rocket with a reusable first stage. In its appearance and characteristics, it suspiciously resembles Falcon 9. It is 71 m high, 3.8 m in diameter and has a launch mass of 590 tons. Space Pioneer assures that the rocket will be able to launch 17 tons of payload into low-Earth orbit and 14 tons into a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous Earth orbit. The startup plans to carry out about 30 Tianlong-3 launches per year for three years after the debut launch.

The first stage of the Tianlong-3 rocket on the test stand. Source: Space Pioneer

Such an obvious copying of Falcon 9 did not embarrass investors. In June 2024, the company managed to raise 207 million dollars in funding. In total, Space Pioneer has raised over $550 million dollars since its inception. This makes it perhaps the most well-funded private Chinese space company.

Escaped rocket

Space Pioneer was going to carry out the first orbital launch of Tianlong-3 as early as July. On the eve of it, engineers prepared a fire test of the first stage of the carrier. But it did not go as planned. In front of the astonished witnesses, the stage flew off the stand and, literally, went up into the sky.

Apparently, the engineers didn’t consider the possibility of such an accident at all and the Tianlong-3 was not equipped with emergency flight termination facilities. The stage continued to gain altitude until its engines were shut down by the computer. It then fell to the ground 1.5 kilometers from the stand and exploded. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

According to a statement from Space Pioneer, the accident was caused by a “structural failure” at the connection between the rocket body and the test stand. It is unknown at this time how it will affect the company’s highly ambitious plans. But it is clear that it definitely needs to pay attention to security. An uncontrolled stage falling near residential neighborhoods could have easily caused a large number of casualties – and Space Pioneer is very lucky to avoid that.