HELSINKI — Space Pioneer has become the first Chinese private launch firm to achieve orbit with a liquid propellant rocket.

The Tianlong-2 (“Sky Dragon-2”) lifted off from a transport erector launcher at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 4:48 a.m. Eastern, April 2, sending a small remote sensing experiment satellite into orbit. 

U.S. Space Force tracking cataloged the Ai Taikong Kexue (“love space science”) satellite in a 478 by 496-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit with an inclination of 97.4 degrees. The satellite was developed by Hunan Hangsheng Satellite Technology Co., Ltd. 

The launch means Space Pioneer—full name Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., Ltd—becomes the first private company to reach orbit with its first launch.

The three-stage Tianlong-2 is capable of carrying 2,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit (LEO) or 1,500 kg to a 500-kilometer-altitude sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). 

The rocket used coal-derived kerosene instead of the fuel refined from oil, according to Space Pioneer. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), China’s state-owned main space contractor, recently approved the coal-derived kerosene for use in launches.

The successful liquid propellant launch marks a major milestone in the development of China’s commercial space sector, the dawn of which occurred in late 2014 with a government policy change. 

2023 could see more than 20 launches of private and commercially-developed rockets.

New commercial launchers coming on line could help provide China with greater launch capacity, more flexibility and participate in national projects including the Tiangong space station and deployment of a national broadband megaconstellation

Before launch Tianlong-2 was understood to have used 85-ton-thrust, YF-102 gas generator engines incorporating 3D-printed developed by CASC. This was confirmed April 3 by CASC’s liquid propulsion academy. 

The three first stage YF-102 were arranged in a triangular arrangement. Tianlong-2 also has a diameter of 3.35 meters, as with many of CASC’s Long March series rockets.  

The firm thanked the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), the government body overseeing the space sector, CASC and its sister defense giant CASIC in a press statement.

Space Pioneer announced Feb. 15 that it recently secured “B+ and “Pre-C” strategic funding rounds. The company says it has now raised nearly 3 billion yuan ($438 million) in funding since its founding in 2018. A number of investors are linked to the state.

Major investors include China International Capital Corporation (CICC), a partially state-owned investment vehicle, CCB International, belonging to the China Construction Bank Corporation, and CITIC Construction, the engineering and construction arm of Chinese state-owned CITIC Group, Zhejiang University Lianchuang, as well as venture capital investment.

The firm has also received sponsorship and investment from Zhangjiagang, a city in Jiangsu province on the Yangtze river. Space Pioneer is building rocket manufacturing facilities in the city and the Tianlong-2 launch also bore the name “Zhangjiagang.”

Funds raised in the two recent rounds are to be used for the development of the larger Tianlong-3 launcher and its rocket engines, construction of requisite launch facilities, and attracting talent. Space Pioneer says it is developing its own staged-combustion kerolox engines.

Tianlong-3 will be a two-stage kerolox rocket with a reusable first stage. A Space Pioneer press release says the rocket will be capable of lifting 15 tons of payload to LEO and is targeting launching batches of up to 60 satellites per launch for China’s Guowang LEO communications megaconstellation. CASC’s Long March 5B is currently understood to be the main launcher for the project.

The company is targeting a first launch of Tianlong-3 in early 2024. It plans to ramp up to a planned cadence of more than 12 launches per year from 2025. Curiously, Space Pioneer initially started out developing engines burning green monopropellant before changing direction. The firm also apparently scrapped development of the Tianlong-1 rocket.

The firm is competing with a number of other Chinese private and commercial launch firms.

Rocket startups including iSpace, Galactic Energy, OneSpace and Landspace have attempted light-lift, solid rocket launches, with iSpace and Galactic Energy proving successful with at least one launch. 

All bar OneSpace are developing liquid propellant rockets designed for eventual reusability. Other players including Orienspace and Rocket Pi are likewise competing in this arena.

Landspace last week announced it had completed the final assembly of its second Zhuque-2 methane-LOX rocket. It will seek to improve on the first launch from December, which failed following an issue with vernier thrusters on the rocket’s upper stage.

Spinoffs from giant state-owned enterprises CASC (China Rocket), CASIC (Expace) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS Space) have also succeeded with solid orbital launches.

Space Pioneer and another recently emerging company, Orienspace, are moving directly towards medium-lift and heavier classes of launchers. Earlier-established Chinese commercial firms looked to first develop lighter solid and liquid propellant rockets. 

These trends appear to reflect early entrants initially looking to launch small satellites for private customers, being the apparent market, whereas China has more recently indicated that private firms can participate in launching both the national “satellite internet” project and sending cargo to the Tiangong space station.

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...