HELSINKI — China will utilize expected launch capacity from the country’s emergent commercial space sector to help realize its megaconstellation plans.

The move will help traditional state-owned players focus on civil and military programs, including human spaceflight, military and lunar plans, while also boosting China’s overall launch and space capabilities and meeting national strategic goals.

China has outlined plans for two separate low Earth orbit communications megaconstellations in response to projects including SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb. These are the national Guowang project, or SatNet, consisting of around 13,000 satellites, and the Shanghai-backed G60 Starlink initiative, which raised 6.7 billion yuan ($943 million) early this year. More than a hundred are planned for launch this year, but thousands will need to be in place in the coming years in order to secure use of frequencies.

It now appears that new launch capacity being developed by commercial actors will play a pivotal role in getting the planned satellites into orbit, according to a report from China Central Television (CCTV).

The report notes that China needs to act fast before low Earth orbit is saturated by other actors in terms of spacecraft in orbit and frequencies claimed and used. Noting the dominance achieved by SpaceX and its reusable rockets over the past decade, this approach is seen as meeting new demands requiring China to expand its launch capacity, while still meeting needs for existing national civil, military, science and deep space missions. 

Officials have previously stated contracts for satellite internet megaconstellations—part of a wider, national “new infrastructures” policy—will be open to commercial players.

China’s commercial launch companies began emerging around 2015 following a central government decision to open up sections of the space sector to private capital. While early launch efforts focused on smaller, simpler solid rockets, the sector is maturing. China’s first commercially-developed liquid propellant rockets reaching orbit in 2023 and many players are now developing large, reusable launchers, are now close to providing added launch capabilities

Landspace, with the methane-liquid oxygen Zhuque-2 and planned stainless steel Zhuque-3, Space Pioneer with the kerosene-fueled Tianlong-3, Galactic Energy (Pallas-1) and iSpace (Hyperbola series) are among companies working on reusable rockets. Meanwhile Deep Blue Aerospace could make its first orbital launch and recovery attempt later this year with the Nebula-1 rocket.

CompanyRocket NameRocket TypeKey Features or Notes
iSpaceHyperbola-3Methane-liquid oxygen reusablePayload capacity of 8,500 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO); first flight planned for 2025.
LandspaceZhuque-3Methalox reusablePayload capacity up to 21,000 kg to LEO; first flight planned for 2025.
Galactic EnergyPallas-1Kerosene-liquid oxygen reusablePayload capacity of 5,000 kg to LEO, or 3,000 kg to a 700 km sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).
CAS SpaceKinetica 2Kerolox reusablePayload capacity of 7,800 kg to 500 km SSO.
Deep Blue AerospaceNebula-1Kerolox reusablePayload capacity of 1,000 kg to 500 km SSO; first flight planned in late 2024.
Space PioneerTianlong-3KeroloxComparable to Falcon 9 in launch capability; plans for a reusable first stage.
OrienspaceGravity-2Kerolox25,600 kg to LEO. First flight in 2025; plans for a reusable first stage.
CASCVariousVariousWorking on reusable rockets including a new-generation human-rated launcher, spaceplane, and Long March 9 super heavy-lift launcher.
Non-exhaustive list of planned Chinese reusable rockets (Credit: Andrew Jones/SpaceNews).

Further bolstering this trend is the fact that commercial space is now also receiving strong promotion by China’s central and local governments.

China’s Central Economic Work Conference, held in December in Beijing, identified the commercial space industry as one of several strategic emerging industries to nurture. Commercial space was also noted as a priority in a government work report in March.

Municipal and provincial governments, including Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong, Hainan and Anhui have recently introduced policies to attract and foster commercial space companies. These actions are seen as potential drivers of high-tech growth and innovation, with the commercial space sector perceived as having the ability to stimulate the growth of related industries, including materials science, computer technologies and artificial intelligence.

China’s rapid launch rate growth

China’s national annual launch rate has grown from a national record 22 in 2016, to 55 in 2022 and 67 in 2023. This meant China was behind only the United States in terms of launches and payload to orbit, with SpaceX accounting for the vast majority of launches. 

This year, China aims for around 100 launches, including around 30 planned by commercial actors. Only a handful of launches from the above activity have so far been related to China’s megaconstellation plans. 

But getting the two megaconstellations off the ground includes meeting deadlines set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which coordinates the use of frequencies. For Guowang, China will need to launch the first satellites using all the frequencies to be brought into use by 2027, and launch 10% of the total number of satellites launched by September 2029. Half of the satellites for the constellation will need to be launched by September 2032. Deployment of the constellation is to be completed two years later.

Meeting the targets for both Guowang and G60 Starlink will require further growth of China’s launch activities, meaning both relying on commercial launch providers, but also providing opportunities for these companies to establish themselves.

The next few years will be crucial in this area, a Landspace official told CCTV: “For domestic commercial rocket companies, the next 5 to 10 years are a very important period of strategic development opportunities. We must work hard. Seizing such a window period will also help our country seize the right to speak in the future of space and space.”

Spaceport access bottleneck

While China has greatly increased its small satellite manufacturing capacity and launch capabilities, it faces a bottleneck in access to spaceports for launch, particularly for commercial actors playing second fiddle to civil and military missions.

Two new launch pads, dedicated to the Long March 8 rocket, for which new engine production capacity has been built, and a range of commercial launch service providers, are close to completion near Wenchang spaceport on Hainan island.

In a new development, the national Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert is planning a commercial space launch demonstration area, according to CCTV. Companies including Landspace and Space Pioneer have already established their own launch facilities in the area.

Sea launches are another, emerging option, while another spaceport may be constructed  near Ningbo in Eastern China.

International context and competition

China’s plans and progress have raised concerns among other nations, in terms of capabilities, leadership and international competition. China’s own military has meanwhile claimed that SpaceX has intended for Starlink to be used for military purposes in the wake of Ukraine’s defense against the invasion of Russia. At the same time, China plans two such constellations.

Furthermore, Chinese commercial launch companies that prove themselves through launching internet satellite missions could eventually position themselves as alternatives on the international launch market, while the megaconstellations themselves could be part of a wider, geopolitical struggle for influence and position China as a provider of global infrastructure.

Low Earth orbit is not the only area in which some Chinese officials see the United States as competing with and trying to force out China. Former chairman of China’s state-owned main space contractor, Wu Yansheng, said in late 2022 that he believes the U.S. is seeking to seize strategic resources including specific orbits, locations and radio frequencies.

In March 2023 another space official called for the country to speed up its plans to develop lunar infrastructure or miss out on a never-to-be-repeated opportunity. China launched its Queqiao-2 lunar relay satellite and a pair of small experimental lunar communications and navigation satellites in March.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...