Private rocket developers in China have taken off, embarking on a long march
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2021-05-10  ·   Source: NO.19 MAY 6, 2021

Rocket models stand in the carrier rocket factory of LandSpace in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province, on May 26, 2020 (XINHUA)

Chinese private rocket developer, i-Space has successfully completed a test run on a new engine it hopes will power its next test rocket later this year. The breakthrough was made on April 26, just three days before China's launch of Tianhe, the core module for its first permanent space station Tiangong.

While visually less spectacular than the launch of Tianhe, the i-Space test run was important for the company as it prepares for its next attempt to send a rocket into orbit. This will be the company's third such attempt since its establishment in October 2016. Its first, in July 2019, was successful; however, its second in February this year, was not.

These attempts have placed i-Space in the national spotlight. Prior to its successful launch in 2019, two other Chinese private rocket developers had tried and failed, making i-Space the first Chinese private space firm to send a satellite into orbit, and marking a milestone for China's commercial space industry.

The success in 2019 has instilled confidence in China's private rocket developers and in turn helped the company to secure more investment. One year after that launch, another private Chinese company, Galactic Energy, was also able to successfully launch a satellite with its own rocket.

While the company's failed launch in February might have dampened some of the enthusiasm in China's private rocket industry, it hasn't hindered the company's preparations for the upcoming launch later this year.

New space players

Aerospace had been a government-funded undertaking in China until 2014, when it gave the green light for private companies to participate in aerospace development. In 2016, the National Development and Reform Commission as well as the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense released more detailed plans for the opening of the industry to private companies.

These plans were a stimulus for rapid development of the industry, inspiring some aerospace experts to establish aerospace firms, with many choosing to start firms focusing on the development of satellites. Satellites need be sent into orbit by rockets, yet currently, the cost of launching satellites is mostly higher than that of developing them, hindering the development of the industry.

Peng Xiaobo, founder of i-Space, which is also known as Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology, used to be a rocket designer at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology. He established i-Space after seeing a market for commercial rockets. At that stage, there were already private rocket developers in China, who were working to raise funds and make maiden launches.

"There were two reasons why investors were hesitant to invest in this industry during its early stages," said Li Xin, a Beijing-based investor. "One is that many investors were not familiar with aerospace technology, and the other is that the industry had long been run by the state, so it was difficult to obtain sufficient data to estimate market performance."

Founded in October 2016, i-Space didn't receive its first investment until August 2017. In 2018, two rocket launch attempts respectively by two other companies, OneSpace and LandSpace, both failed, creating a gloomy atmosphere around the industry. But the successful launch by i-Space in 2019 marked a turning point in public perception. The rocket, Hyperbola-1, carried two satellites and three additional payloads into orbit at an altitude of 300 kilometers, making i-Space the third in the world to do so after SpaceX and Blue Origin from the United States.

"When talking about rocket developers, many would think of Elon Musk," said i-Space Vice President Huo Jia. "Musk's company SpaceX was founded in 2002 and achieved orbit in 2008. We cut that process to less than three years."

Galactic Energy was established in 2018 and followed i-Space to become China's second private space firm to successfully achieve orbit in November 2020. The company's founder, Liu Baiqi, was previously an associate professor at Beihang University, formerly known as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

"Each company has different intentions in launching its first rocket," Liu said. "For Galactic Energy, launching a rocket was just the start of a long march. The goal of our private rocket developers is to lower launching cost by developing reusable carrier rockets."

The carrier rocket CERES-1 developed by company Galactic Energy blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province on November 7, 2020 (XINHUA)

The layout

In late 2018, LandSpace opened China's first privately owned carrier rocket factory in Huzhou, a city in Zhejiang Province. With the factory, the largest of its kind in Asia, LandSpace is about to mass produce rockets.

LandSpace plans to launch its ZQ 2 rocket this year, and begin mass producing the rocket and its engines in the near future. According to Zhang Changwu, founder of LandSpace, starting from 2022, the plant will be able to produce 15 ZQ 2 rockets and 200 engines per year.

To fund the ZQ 2 program, LandSpace raised 1.2 billion yuan ($175 million) in its 2020 round of financing, the largest ever fundraising event in China's private space industry.

The development of the private rocket companies has also received support from local governments in China. In September 2020, Galactic Energy signed an agreement with the government of Jianyang, a county-level city under the administration of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to construct a base there.

The base in Jianyang, with a planned total investment of about $225 million, will be used for research, development and production of liquid propellant rocket engines for Galactic Energy's Pallas series of launch vehicles.

Other public-private partnerships include a major commercial aerospace base in Wuhan, capital city of Hubei Province in central China, and a coastal facility for sea launches and launch vehicle production in the eastern province of Shandong.

"Besides the United States and Russia, China is the only country in the world that has an entire industrial chain of rocket manufacturing," Huo said. "This is our advantage."

In January, i-Space was reportedly planning to conduct an initial public offering in the science and technology-focused science and technology innovation board in Shanghai. If the listing goes smoothly, it will become the first commercial rocket firm listed on the market in China.

It is estimated that at least 3,000 Chinese commercial satellites are waiting to be carried into orbit and this number will increase in the following years with the growing demand for satellite service.

Wang Yanan, Chief Editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, suggested major private commercial aerospace enterprises seek participation in more projects, such as the construction of space stations, and Moon and Mars exploration, for more sustained development. "The participation of China's commercial aerospace enterprises will help the sector make advances in many aspects such as cost control, decision-making efficiency and adapting to new technological changes," Wang said. 

(Print Edition Title: Sky Rocketing) 

Copyedited by G.P. Garth

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