HELSINKI — China’s Galactic Energy conducted its first sea launch early Wednesday, also marking a ninth successive successful launch for the commercial company. 

The Ceres-1 solid rocket lifted off from a transport erector launcher on a mobile sea platform off the coast of Haiyang, Shandong province, at 5:34 a.m. Eastern (0934 UTC) Sept. 5.

Aboard were four satellites for Guodian Gaoke, a commercial firm constructing its Tianqi low-Earth orbit narrow-band Internet of Things constellation. 

The launch carried Tianqi satellites 21-24, with the spacecraft targeting an 800-kilometer-altitude orbit. The satellites are equipped with chemical propulsion systems allowing orbital maneuvers. Guodian Gaoke has 21 satellites in orbit and aims to complete the 38-satellite constellation in 2024.

Galactic Energy dubbed the launch “The Little Mermaid” in a Rocket Lab-style mission naming. 

Ceres-1 has a diameter of 1.4 meters, a length of about 20 meters, a mass at take-off of about 33 tons and a liquid propellant upper stage. It can deliver 400 kg to low Earth orbit (LEO) or 300 kg to a 500-kilometer-altitude sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). This was the first launch to 800 kilometers.

China’s Eastern sea launch spaceport in Haiyang facilitated the launch. The mobile rocket launch barge designated DE FU 15002 was used for the launch.

Haiyang has now supported launches of state-owned Long March 11 solid rockets and the spinoff Jielong-3 rocket. Another startup, Orienspace, is currently targeting December for its first ever launch, using Haiyang. 

Orienspace’s Gravity-1 consists of three solid stages and four side boosters. The rocket will have the capability to lift around 6,500 kilograms of payload to LEO, or 3,700 kilograms to 700-km SSO.

Haiyang spaceport could support liquid launchers in the future and is part of a wider expansion of spaceports in China to help ease a bottleneck in access to space, and provide greater launch flexibility and redundancy. It could potentially reduce the risk from falling rocket debris associated with Chinese launches from inland spaceports.

Tuesday’s Ceres-1 launch was a hot launch. Long March 11 launches from the Yellow Sea have been cold launches.

Galactic Energy was founded in early 2018 by former employees of the state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). With support of the national military-civil fusion strategy, the firm launched its first Ceres-1 solid rocket in November 2020. This made it only the second private Chinese launch firm to place a satellite in orbit, following iSpace in 2019.

A single launch followed a year later, with a pair of launches performed in 2022. The company is now ramping up its launch rate, launching five times in 2023, including four since July 22.

The company is also preparing for the first launch of its Pallas-1 kerosene-liquid oxygen launcher. The reusable two-stage Pallas-1 will be capable of carrying 5,000 kilograms to LEO or 3,000 kilograms to 700-km SSO. It raised $200 million for reusable launch vehicle development in early 2022.

Galactic Energy stated at the China Commercial Aerospace Forum in Wuhan in July this year that it is targeting Q3 next year for the Pallas-1 test flight. The company plans a first flight including recovery of the first stage using landing legs for 2025.

Space Pioneer (Tianlong-2) and Landspace (Zhuque-2) earlier this year became the first Chinese commercial firms to reach orbit with liquid propellant rockets. These successes mark a jump in Chinese commercial payload capacity, as well as launch vehicle complexity. 

China’s commercial launch sector has also grown in terms of launch rate and diversity in 2023. Six firms — Galactic Energy, iSpace, Landspace, Space Pioneer and state-owned spinoffs CAS Space and Expace have all reached orbit this year. This group have already launched 11 times this year, surpassing the total of 10 missions accrued by Expace, CAS Space, China Rocket, Galactic Energy and iSpace (one failure) in 2022.

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...