Chinese commercial launch companies are preparing second-generation rockets

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Chinese launch companies are developing new, larger launchers; asteroid mining startup receives angel round funding

HELSINKI — Chinese commercial launch companies are making ground in a race to bring new generation launch vehicles to the market.

Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Ltd., also known as iSpace, says it is aiming to test its Hyperbola-2 launch rocket in 2021.

The liquid methane-liquid oxygen launcher will be capable of lifting 1.1 metric tons to a 500 km Sun synchronous orbit (expendable) or 700 kg reusable. The 28-meter-tall, of 3.35-meter-diameter will have a mass at liftoff of about 90 metric tons, according to a presentation from iSpace last week.

In July iSpace performed the first successful orbital launch by a Chinese private company. This was preceded by attempts by OneSpace in March and Landspace in October last year. All of these used solid propellant launch vehicles.

Landspace is meanwhile making progress in the development of liquid methane-liquid oxygen engines for its two-stage Zhuque-2 (Vermillion Bird-2), set for debut in 2021.

In early July Landspace carried out lengthy tests of the TQ-11, a 10-ton thrust engine for the Zhuque-2 second stage. This was followed by a successful 100-second test of the TQ-12 80-ton thrust methalox engine.

IAC visa issues

Both iSpace and Landspace have booths at the ongoing International Astronautical Congress in Washington. Staff from Chinese space companies have however reportedly had issues gaining visas to attend the event.

Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, was not present at the Heads of Agencies plenary as advertised. An IAC spokesperson informed SpaceNews that Wu could not attend, while a State Department official stated that it could not comment on confidential issues.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying confirmed Oct. 23 that the Chinese delegation’s absence from the IAC is that, “the US side did not issue them visas in time.” Hua accused the U.S. of “weaponizing visa in defiance of its international responsibilities and obligations.”

Second wave Chinese launch companies

Back in China a number of newer Chinese commercial launch companies are making progress on first launchers.

Beijing Deep Blue Aerospace Technology Co., Ltd., established in 2017, earlier this month carried out new, successful thrust chamber tests for a kerosene-liquid oxygen engine. The engines are expected to power Nebula-1 and Nebula-2 light and medium-lift launchers.

S-Motor, founded in 2017, last year tested a dual pulse solid-fuel rocket motor. This month it performed successful stage separation tests. It has previously announced plans to develop an unnamed three-stage solid-propellant small launcher.

Beijing Xinghe Dongli Space Technology Co. Ltd., also known as Galactic Energy, last month carried out a second stage hot fire test. A test flight for its first launch vehicle, named Ceres-1, is currently slated for March 2020.

Chinese commercial launch companies are being supported by a national strategy of civil-military fusion. This includes facilitating the transfer of restricted technologies to approved firms in order to promote innovation in dual-use technology. In the space sector the light-launch and small satellite arenas are seeing particularly intense activity.

State spin-offs

China Rocket Co. Ltd., a commercial spinoff from a launch vehicle manufacturer under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), has announced plans for new generations of rockets.

The company’s Jielong-1 (Smart Dragon-1) four-stage solid propellant rocket had a successful test flight Aug. 17. Smart Dragon-2 and 3 launch vehicles are in development, with the former set for the launch pad in 2020.

Smart Dragon-2 will be 21-meters tall with a diameter of 2 meters, and a mass at liftoff of 60 metric tons. It will be capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload to a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit.

The 2.6-meter-diameter, 31-meter-tall and 116-metric-ton Smart Dragon-3 will follow in 2021. It will be capable of lifting 1.5 tons of payload to 500-kilometer SSO, using 2- and 3-meter-diameter fairings.

China Rocket is planning a launch cadence of about 8-10 launches per year for SD-2 and 5-8 of SD-3, according to president Tang Yagang.

China Rocket is also working on a medium-lift, liquid propellant rocket with a reusable first stage. A test flight for the Tenglong-1 (Flying Dragon-1) is targeted for 2021. The company revealed at an Oct. 19 press conference that it will target a price of $5,000 per kilogram.

Expace, a subsidiary of the state-owned missile-maker CASIC, will soon launch two more Kuaizhou-1A solid rockets in quick succession. The first will carry a Jilin-1 high resolution optical remote sensing satellite for Chang Guang Satellite Technology Co. Ltd. Launch is expected late October.

Expace is also developing larger iterations of its Kuaizhou solid rocket series. Kuaizhou-11, a heavier version of the 1A slated for test launch in 2018, is however still yet to fly.

Space resource startup acquires funding

Origin Space, a Shenzhen-based asteroid mining startup, has raised $7 million in angel round funding. Investment came from Matrix Partners China and Linear Venture, according to an Oct 14 announcement (Chinese).

Established in 2017, the company will use the funds for space telescopes for multi-band observations of asteroids. Detection of suitable asteroids is stated by the company as a first step toward utilization of space resources.

The Taurus-1 satellite launched Sept. 11 carried a small UV telescope belonging to Origin Space, designed for monitoring the atmosphere for impact events. 

Origin Space describes itself as China’s first company dedicated to the exploration and utilization of space resources. It has reached cooperation agreements with a number of universities and research institutions, including the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).