HELSINKI — China’s human spaceflight agency says the country’s commercial rocket companies could launch low-cost cargo missions in the future.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) opened a call for proposals for a low-cost cargo transportation system to supply the Tiangong space station in May this year. Four from a total of 10 submitted proposals meeting requirements were selected to proceed to the detailed design study phase in September.

Despite submissions from commercial companies, the chosen proposals came from entities belonging to state-owned enterprises. 

However, a number of the proposals selected opted for launch solutions from commercial rocket companies, Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of CMSEO, said at a pre-launch press conference for the imminent Shenzhou 17 crewed mission at Jiuquan spaceport, Oct. 25.

“Each of these companies is developing rockets with a carrying capacity of 4 tons to 6 tons [to low Earth orbit],” Lin said. “The overall cost performance is very high.” 

Lin added that these are expected to participate in the next phase of commercial procurement of the low-cost cargo program.

Chinese commercial launch companies developing rockets in this payload capability range or beyond include Landspace (Zhuque-2, already flown), Space Pioneer (Tianlong-3), Galactic Energy (Pallas-1) and Orienspace (Gravity-1).

Tomas Hrozensky, a senior research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), told SpaceNews earlier this year that the CMSEO program is a clear indication that China is seeking to replicate the approach which yielded NASA a major success.

“By more actively embracing commercial participation, China appears to confirm the increasingly recognized benefits of such an approach in stimulating technological innovation in their space industry, and through this also enhancing their space capabilities at large,” Hrozensky said.

The Chinese government opened up parts of the space sector to private capital in late 2014. The move is seen to be a reaction to developments in the U.S., notably the emergence of SpaceX and Planet. 

Lunar rover solicitation

Lin also stated that CMSEO had solicited proposals for a lunar rover for the country’s crewed lunar missions. China is aiming to land a pair of astronauts on the moon before 2030.

He stated that universities, automotive enterprises and scientific research institutions had formed joint teams to carry out design work.

More than 40 entities formed 14 joint teams to submit formal intentions, Lin said. Of the submitted proposals, 11 teams have passed the first round review and proceed for further evaluation.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is likewise working with Toyota to develop a pressurized lunar rover. 

CMSEO is pleased to see commercial space companies developing rapidly and are actively engaging in human spaceflight activities, Lin stated.

China is planning to expand Tiangong with further modules. It is also looking at opening the station to commercial uses including tourism.

Shenzhou 17 is due to launch on a Long March 2F rocket at 11:14 p.m. Eastern, Oct. 25 (0314 UTC, Oct. 26) from Jiuquan. It is expected to reach Tiangong 6.5 hours later.

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...