Space Day of China: China's burgeoning commercial space endeavor
By Liu Tianwen, Gao Yun
China's commercial space endeavor has burgeoned in the past years since the country introduced a slew of favorable policies to embrace this emerging industry.
In 2015, China issued a national medium- and long-term development plan for civil space infrastructure (2015-2025), encouraging private capital to participate in the space industry.
Commercial space startups have boomed and commercial space programs have risen ever since.
"Commercial space is a new industry with fast technology iteration, high economic benefits and strong driving force," said Feng Jiehong, head of China Aerospace Sanjiang Group, a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC).
"It is becoming a new important growth pole of our economy and an important support for our country towards a major power in space," said Feng.
The CASIC and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) were the two Chinese state-owned enterprises that first involved in the commercial space industry with their respective subsidiaries – ExPace Technology and China Rocket – set up in 2016.
Small solid carrier rockets Kuaizhou and Jielong (Smart Dragon) rocket series, developed and launched by the two subsidiaries, are designed to launch low-orbit satellites weighing less than 300 kg.
The Kuaizhou series have conducted nearly 20 commercial launches since its maiden flight in 2017.
There's no bottleneck in the Kuaizhou rockets' manufacturing as all components and materials are self-developed after a series of breakthroughs, said Feng, adding that an upgraded version of Kuanzhou-1A can be expected in 2024, and the company is working on new rockets with larger diameters and greater payload capacity.
Meanwhile, China's private enterprises and institutions have also initiated commercial space programs.
OneSpace, a Beijing-based private firm with a manufacturing base in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, launched the country's first commercial suborbital rocket dubbed "Chongqing Liangjiang Star," also known as the OS-X, on May 17, 2018. Nearly four months later, it successfully launched another self-developed commercial suborbital rocket OS-X1.
The company, established in 2015, is China's first private company with a license to develop carrier rockets.
While there were also failures out there. LandSpace's liquid oxygen-methane rocket, ZQ-1, suffered an issue with its third stage on October 27, 2018. If it weren't for the failure, it could have become the first Chinese private launch company to reach orbit.
Finally, the honor fell to the Chinese space launch company Beijing interstellar Glory Space Technology, or iSpace. The company sent two satellites into orbit on July 25, 2019 with its Hyperbola-1 Y1 carrier rocket, marking the first successful orbital launch by a private Chinese firm.
The country's largest solid carrier rocket till now, Kinetica-1, also known as Lijian-1 or Power Rocket-1, developed by a mixed-ownership enterprise CAS Space, was successfully launched in July 2022, sending six experimental satellites into preset orbit.
China's commercial satellite is developing even faster. In 2015, the Jilin-1 high-resolution remote-sensing satellite was launched successfully, initiating the country's commercial satellite application.
Chang Guang Satellite Technology, the developer of the satellite, said by 2030 the Jilin constellation will have 138 satellites in orbit, enabling to observe any arbitrary point on the globe with a 10-minute revisit capability.
In 2022 alone, nearly 20 institutions, including state-owned enterprises, private enterprises, research institutes and universities, have developed and launched over 100 commercial satellites.
The past year has seen a total of 21 commercial launch services, and more can be expected in 2023.
According to Global Times, Smart Dragon-3 carrier rocket is set to conduct four launch missions in June, August, September and October, respectively, to send over 20 satellites into space.
The solid-fuel carrier rocket Kuaizhou is going to take over seven commercial launch missions this year.
Kinetica-1 is scheduled to launch in May after its maiden flight last July. Its developer, CAS Space, said it will expand the service scenarios for solid-propellant rockets and enlarge its rocket family.
The Hyperbola-1 solid launch vehicle from iSpace, which just finished its fifth flight in early April, will carry out roughly 10 launch missions this year, among which will be its first sea launch.
Promising new space applications
Besides traditional industry applications including communication, navigation and remote sensing, space travel and deep space exploration are emerging application scenarios in the commercial space market, which have gained sensation as several foreign companies have attempted their commercial manned spaceflights.
The American spaceflight company Virgin Galactic completed its first fully crewed test flight of its spacecraft in July 2021, making a giant leap toward commercial suborbital spaceflight. Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket took its founder Jeff Bezos to the edge of space in one of its space voyages, and SpaceX launched a first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station last year.
Chinese companies are marching towards the direction.
According to their websites, iSpace is developing the country's first homegrown suborbital concept aircraft by a private company, and CAS Space is working on a reusable space tourism vehicle able to fly at a maximum altitude of 100 to 120 kilometers, which can take seven passengers for a space voyage lasting for 300 to 550 seconds.