Chinese commercial launch sector nears takeoff with suborbital rocket test

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It is still early days for this emerging sector, but 2018 will be the year that Chinese commercial launch companies begin to take off.

HELSINKI, Finland —  In the early hours of April 5 on Hainan Island, Chinese company Space Honor, or i-Space, successfully sent a single-stage solid-propellant rocket over the Karman line to an altitude of 108 kilometers.

The low-key test was a step in the development of an orbital 1.4-meter diameter, 20-meter tall Hyperbola-1 rocket, which the company aims to test launch in June 2019 with the capability of sending a 300-kilogram payload into low Earth orbit. Hyperbola-3, expected to debut before the end of 2021, will be capable of lofting two metric tons to LEO.

The test launch marks the start of what could become a flurry of Chinese commercial launch vehicle company activity. Previously known Chinese companies looking to get off the ground and gain a share of a promised surge of domestic and international demand for launch services include Linkspace, Landspace and OneSpace, based in Beijing, and Expace, a commercial spin-off from state missile-maker CASIC, in Wuhan, Hubei province.

All have emerged in the past few years following a policy shift to allow private investment in the previously close space sector, as well as a push for the defense industry to develop and transfer military technologies for civilian use.

Marco Aliberti, a resident fellow at the European Space Policy Institute in Austria, told SpaceNews that the decision was made around 2015, as Chinese leadership became increasingly aware that commercial space activities are an essential element in making China, a “space power in all respects”. This vision is set out in a 2016 Chinese space white paper, which also made the first policy document mention of private investment in space.

While many of these companies have at times been referred to as China’s SpaceX,  they are mostly – initially at least —focusing on small satellite launch capabilities using light, solid-fueled expendable rockets.

“My sense is that these Chinese launch companies are reacting to the same market indicators that all the American launch companies see,” says Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank. “There’s been a big shift towards smaller and cheaper satellites, which in turn has expanded the potential market for smallsat launch services. That includes all the new startup companies and emerging and developing countries that are looking to put up their own smallsats.”

There are exceptions. Linkspace has had success with scaled vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) tests, as it looks to develop liquid rockets with a reusable first stage by the early 2020s. Landspace, meanwhile, has recently begun developing a methane-liquid oxygen rocket engine for a medium-lift launcher, to be ready for test flights in around the same timeframe.

It is still early days for this emerging sector, but 2018 will be the year that Chinese commercial launch companies begin to take off.

OneSpace has announced it will launch its first OS-X rocket, designed for suborbital flights for high-altitude research and test services, on May 17 from northwest China, and is also aiming to test the orbital OS-M rocket around the end of this year. Landspace could launch its LandSpace-1 – also a solid propellant rocket, capable of lofting 400 kilograms to a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit – later in 2018 from Wenchang, Hainan.