China’s Private Space Race
Phillip Keane posted on June 11, 2018 | | 1147 views

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While Elon Musk and SpaceX have been launching cars into space and blowing our minds with videos of rockets landing vertically, China has quietly been developing its own private space industry.

And guess what? It has made vertical landings too, as you can see in the video later on.

The first inkling of Chinese commercial space ambitions came in 2016 with the announcement that a state-owned commercial company named ExPace had planned to launch its own rocket with the goal of taking on the small satellite launch market.

However, it seems that ExPace has been pipped at the post by private company OneSpace, which confirmed on May 17, 2018, that it had successfully launched China’s first privately developed rocket.

And with the successful May launch, China has shown that it is not messing around. The private space race between the U.S. and China is indeed on.

OneSpace's OS-X0 launches in May 2018. (Image courtesy of OneSpace.)
OneSpace's OS-X0 launches in May 2018. (Image courtesy of OneSpace.)

So who are these companies? And who is funding them? Should the U.S. space industry be worried?

Let’s answer these questions and take a look at the current state of China’s growing private space sector.

The Main Players

The recent flurry of activity in China’s private space sector revolves around four main players, which are all vying for a slice of the small satellite launch market.

The small satellite market (which includes all classes from mini-satellite (500kg-100kg) down to nanosatellite (10kg and below) is expected to rise from the current $14.88 billion up to a staggering $53.22 billion by 2022.

With numbers like that on the table, it’s easy to see why there has been a sudden rush in Chinese commercial launch activities.

The four main players (that we know of) are the aforementioned OneSpace and ExPace, along with two others named LandSpace and LinkSpace.

We put quotation marks around the word “private” because there is a certain amount of state involvement in a couple of these companies, and it’s uncertain exactly how deep that involvement runs. Perhaps “commercial space sector” would be a more appropriate catchall term. Let’s have a look at each company, and you can judge for yourself.

OneSpace

Of the four companies, OneSpace is the first to have actually launched a rocket as part of a private space venture. OneSpace is led by CEO Shu Chang, who previously worked for a state-run aerospace company.

As mentioned previously, the company successfully launched its sub-orbital sounding rocket on May 17, 2018, from an undisclosed location in northwest China.

The 9-meter-tall solid-fuelled test rocket dubbed OS-X0 (because it was the first test flight of OneSpace’s OS-X program) reached an altitude of 40km.

The company is planning to launch an orbital rocket named OS-M1 at the end of 2018.

This rapid pace of development from sub-orbital to orbital in the span of six months has led some industry insiders to cast doubt on exactly how “private” OneSpace is, and they point to the company’s ties with state-owned aerospace institutes. So far, OneSpace has received technical support from the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND), and has received 500 million yuan ($77.6 million) through funding from various sources.

The sounding rocket was said by Shu Chang to have been developed in under 12 months, a claim that has also invited skepticism about whether the OS-X program is entirely OneSpace’s own work.

The next OS-X test (OS-X1) is scheduled to occur later this month, at which point the company will move onto the OS-M orbital rocket test program.

The OS-M program is expected to culminate in two variants of the OS-M4—the Block A and Block B variants. The former will be capable of hoisting 552kg to low Earth orbit (LEO), while the Block B is said to be able to lift 748kg to LEO.

That’s more than enough grunt to launch satellites in the mini-satellite class (and anything below it).

Shu Chang has been compared to Elon Musk. And like Musk, Chang plans to develop reusable launch vehicles as well as a manned space capsule.

ExPace

The hilariously titled named “ExPace Technology Corporation” came onto the scene in 2016 and announced that it was developing small satellite launchers. Why is it hilarious? Because “ExPace Technology Corporation” does sound a little bit like “Space Exploration Technologies Corporation” (or “SpaceX” for short). And let’s be honest: China has been known to draw “inspiration” from Western brand names once in a while.

All joking aside, ExPace is a wholly owned subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), which is the largest state-owned space hardware and missile contractor in China. So, it’s definitely not a private company, and it definitely has some huge support behind it.

ExPace—not SpaceX. (Image courtesy of ExPace.)
ExPace—not SpaceX. (Image courtesy of ExPace.)

Think of ExPace as the commercial rocket wing of the Chinese state space program.

Like OneSpace, ExPace is building rockets based on solid fuel, which harks back to its missile engineering roots (solid fuel missiles are easier to store and transport, and can be quickly deployed compared to liquid-fuelled variants, which is exactly what you’d want in a missile system).

ExPace (also known as CASIC Rocket Technology Company) inherited the Kuaizhou rocket platform from CASIC, which made its maiden flight with the Kuaizhou 1 back in 2013. Since then, ExPace has developed the rocket into its own commercial variant and made its own maiden flight with the Kuaizhou 1-A on January 9, 2017. (Note: this was a commercial launch, but not a privately funded one.)

The Khaizhou 1-A was capable of launching 300kg into LEO and measured 20 meters in length.

The next launch of the series will be the flight of the Khaizhou 11, which is slated for later this year. This variant will be capable of launching 1500kg into LEO.

You are probably noticing a pattern here. Chinese rocket companies iterate very fast in terms of how much mass they can put up into space.

A variant capable of putting 20 tons into space is slated for 2025, and a 70-ton version is currently in development.

LinkSpace

LinkSpace (or Link Space Aerospace Technology Inc.) claims to be the first privately-funded rocket company in China, having been founded by CEO Hu Zhenyu in 2014, and is aiming to have its first launch in 2020.

The liquid-fuelled 2-stage Newline-1 rocket. (Image courtesy of LinkSpace.)
The liquid-fuelled 2-stage Newline-1 rocket. (Image courtesy of LinkSpace.)

The company’s proposed Newline-1 rocket differs from those produced by the other companies in that it is liquid-fuelled and designed to be reusable from the offset, with the company already having tested several vertical takeoff/ vertical landing prototypes (much like SpaceX and Blue Origin).

You can see one such test in the video below.

Its Newline-1 rocket will be 20 meters tall and be capable of launching 200kg of payload into a Sun-synchronous orbit. Because of its reusability, Newline-1 will be able to do so for a reasonable price of $4.5 million for a new rocket, or $2.25 million for a reused one.

That puts the company at the lower end of the mini-satellite market at the moment, but while it may not be as competitive on payload capacity, its low cost due to reusability makes LinkSpace a serious contender in the small satellite arena.

The company also seems to be a little more media-savvy than its competitors, and you can follow LinkSpace on its Twitter profile if you wish to keep up with developments and see some cool videos.

LandSpace

Our final “startup” is Beijing-based LandSpace (LandSpace Technology Corporation), which was founded in 2015 by Tsinghua University.

What differentiates its solid rocket launch vehicle (LandSpace-1) from the others in this market is the fact that it is deployable from a truck or other mobile launcher. It is based on the Long March 11 rocket, which indicates a high level of connection to the Chinese government space program.

The LandSpace-1 (LS-1). (Image courtesy of LandSpace.)
The LandSpace-1 (LS-1). (Image courtesy of LandSpace.)

LandSpace is the only commercial company on this list that has worked with foreign customers, having signed a contract to provide launch services for Danish CubeSat company GomSpace. This launch is scheduled to occur later this year.

The 58-ton LS-1 launch vehicle measures 20.7 meters in length and will use four solid motors to launch its payload. Details are a little sketchy on the exact payload figures; however, Gunter’s Space Page reports that LS-1 will be capable of lifting 1000kg into LEO and 400kg into Sun-synchronous orbit.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it. Four very different companies that have varying connections to government, leading some to question whether they are truly private space companies or otherwise.

In addition, it is interesting to see that these companies have different approaches to the commercialization of space, with one company relying on mobile launchers, one working hard on reusability and minimized costs, one having a working liquid-fuelled launch vehicle, and another working toward heavy-lift launch vehicles.

If you were a satellite company looking for a launch provider, you’d be happy with such a variety of low-cost options like those highlighted here.

Regardless of their government collaborations, these Chinese companies are opening their commercial doors to global customers in a way that is utterly inconceivable to the U.S., with their ridiculously restrictive International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and their “Wolf Act” (which purposefully prohibit collaboration with China). The Wolf Act reads as follows:

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China.”

It seems that China didn’t get the memo and is hosting its own space-party, with everyone invited.

And it is this openness to collaboration with any other nation, along with rapid development, that makes China a serious threat to U.S. commercial space activities.


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