ZHUHAI, China—Chinese missile and space group Casic is preparing to build a medium-capacity launcher while also moving into liquid-propellant technology, challenging rival CASC.                                                                       

This follows the intrusion by CASC, traditionally a specialist in liquid-propellant space launch, into Casic’s domain of solid-propellant launchers.

Casic is already well into development of a solid-propellant launcher that would compete closely with CASC’s Long March 6. The new Casic launcher, KZ-11, will fly next month or soon after, say officials of the state group.

Displayed in model form at Airshow China, held here Nov. 1–6, KZ-11 can hurl 1 metric ton to a 700 km (430 mi.) Sun-synchronous orbit, Casic says. That is exactly the same as the capability that CASC attributed last year to Long March 6, although that liquid-propellant launcher has also been credited with a payload in the 500-kg (1,100-lb.) class.

Casic has a smaller solid-propellant launcher, KZ-1, of which the current version is KZ-1A, capable of delivering 300 kg to an unstated orbit. KZ-1, which flew in 2013, could place 300 kg in a Sun-synchronous orbit, media have reported. Some systems are shared between KZ-1 and KZ-11, Casic officials say.

Exploiting its inherent ease of handling as a solid-propellant rocket, KZ-1 and KZ-11 can be carried and fired by a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle, as can KZ-1.

It can therefore be fired from any clear site, the officials say. That contrasts it with the dependence on elaborate fixed launch facilities of CASC’s liquid-propellant launchers.

Mobility is militarily useful, since an enemy can destroy fixed facilities. Moreover, it offers some chance of hiding the launcher, though an official drawing of the KZ-11 on its TEL presented an image of an enormous assemblage that would need wide roads with long-radius curves.

A second advantage of solid propellants is a short reaction time. Casic presents this as valuable for quickly surveying the scene of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, but the Chinese armed forces are likely to be interested in a launcher with which they quickly loft satellites in response to a changing military situation.

KZ-1 has been launched with a week’s notice, but the response time will be cut to two hours, officials say. The letters of the designation are an abbreviation of the Mandarin Chinese name, Kuai Zhou, meaning “rapid vessel.” Confusingly, the same name has been used for satellites that KZ-1 has lofted.

CASC moved into the solid-propellant business last year when it launched Long March 11. The group said Long March 11, of 2 meters (6.6 ft.) diameter, had the most powerful, largest solid-propellant motor so far developed in China, which cannot have been comfortable news for Casic, the country’s traditional solids specialist.

Technical preparation to make solid-propellant boosters for the proposed Long March 9 Moon rocket probably has prompted CASC to develop this form of propulsion. This year CASC has ground tested a multi-segment solid motor of 3 meters diameter.

Casic is not taking this lying down. Looking beyond KZ-11, it is planning a solid-propellant launcher capable of hurling 10 metric tons to low Earth orbit, officials say. That would be a competitor to the Long March 7, a CASC launcher of 13.5-metric-tons low-orbit capacity. Long March 7 first flew in June. The manufacturer expects it to be the workhorse rocket of the Chinese space program.

Casic is planning to move into CASC’s liquid-propellant territory. It will begin by making a small launcher using that technology. Preliminary research has begun, officials say, without disclosing the propellant that they are working on.

CASC’s full name is China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.