HELSINKI — Chinese commercial launch firm Space Pioneer has announced a new round of funding for development of the Tianlong-3 rocket comparable to the SpaceX Falcon 9.

Space Pioneer—full name Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., Ltd—announced the “C+” funding round worth “several hundred millions yuan,” Oct. 25 (100 million yuan = $13.7 million). This 12th round of funding will go towards completing the Tianlong-3 rocket which is to be capable of lifting 17 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), according to a company press statement.

The funds will also be used for production of the smaller Tianlong-2, which had a successful inaugural flight in April this year. That launch made the company the first Chinese commercial firm to reach orbit with a liquid propellant rocket. 

Construction of a launch site for the Tianlong-3 at China’s Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert is also noted. 

Space Pioneer is targeting a first Tianlong-3 launch in the first half of 2024. It aims to launch 30 times per year within three years of the debut launch.

The round was led by CITIC Construction Investment, the engineering and construction arm of Chinese state-owned CITIC Group. A number of other state-owned investment vehicles, including CICC, China Construction Bank, CITIC and Zhejiang University Lianchuang, have participated in earlier rounds.

Tianlong-3 (“Sky Dragon-3”) is a two-stage kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket with a reusable first stage. The 71-meter-long rocket will have a diameter of 3.8 meters. It will have a takeoff mass of 590 tons and produce 770 tons of thrust.

Space Pioneer states that the rocket will be capable of lifting 17 tons of payload to low Earth orbit, or 14 tons to 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. 

Tianlong-3 is by far the largest commercial rocket close to launch in China. It would also be nationally second only to the expendable Long March 5B (25 tons) terms of capacity to LEO.

Not only have Chinese commercial rockets made breakthroughs with Tianlong-2 and Landspace’s Zhuque-2, but national-level policies and projects are now in place to provide opportunities for companies. This includes potential cargo launches to the Tiangong space station.

Space Pioneer, moreover, claims that it will have the capability of carrying 30 satellites on a single launch. This, it says, meets the “low-cost, high-reliability, and high-frequency” launch requirements for China’s national LEO satellite Internet project. 

China is planning to construct its “Guowang” LEO communications megaconstellation of 13,000 satellites. Commercial firms are apparently able to participate in the national project. Tianlong-3 could potentially provide high-density, high-capacity launch capabilities that China currently lacks.

The country’s main state-owned space contractor CASC has meanwhile stated it is planning to ramp up production of its expendable Long March 5B and Long March 8 rockets. Efforts include the construction of a new launch site at Wenchang to help get the Guowang project off the ground.

The firm is also gearing up for its second orbital launch attempt. Jiangsu News reported Oct. 23 that the company’s second Tianlong-2 rocket has been transported from Tianjin to Zhangjiagang, Suzhou. The rocket, powered by coal-derived kerosene and CASC-developed YF-102 gas generator engines, will launch in 2024.

Space Pioneer is readying an intelligent manufacturing base in Zhangjiagang. It says it will have a manufacturing capacity of 30 liquid launch vehicles and 500 rocket engines annually.

Space Pioneer says it will focus on reusability in the coming years. It has previously also stated plans to develop a Tianlong-3H: a triple-core version in the same style as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The Tianlong-3M would see a single core rocket tipped with a reusable spaceplane.

China opened up its space sector to private and commercial activity in 2014, seeing the emergence of launch and other companies. Commercial entities Landspace, Space Pioneer, Galactic Energy, iSpace and Expace have all reached orbit so far this year.

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...