HELSINKI — A Chinese rocket company launched its first rocket Saturday, successfully sending three commercial satellites into orbit and boosting domestic light-lift competition.

The Jielong-1 (Smart Dragon-1) four-stage solid propellant rocket developed by China Rocket Co. Ltd., a commercial spinoff from a launch vehicle manufacturer under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), lifted off from a transporter erector launcher at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 12:11 a.m. Eastern Aug. 17.

While the debut of the 19.5-meters-tall, 1.2-meter-diameter, 23.1-metric-ton Smart Dragon-1 was expected, there was little prior indication of the mission’s timing as with the majority of Chinese launches.

The launch carried the 65-kilogram Qiansheng-1 (01) remote sensing, communication and navigation satellite along with two smaller payloads into 529- by 560-kilometer sun-synchronous orbits, according to data published by the U.S. Air Force.

Qiansheng-1 (01) was developed by Beijing Qiansheng Exploration Technology Co. Ltd., a private satellite manufacturer established in 2017, and is the first step in plans for constellation of 24 satellites providing remote sensing and communications services.

The satellite carries an 11-kilogram CMOS optical imager with a spatial resolution of better than 2 meters developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), a spacecraft manufacturing institute belonging to the main Chinese space contractor, CASC.

The two smaller payloads were Tianqi-2 (‘Apocalypse-2’), an Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity technology verification satellite from Beijing Guodian Gaoke Technology Co. Ltd., which aims to establish a 38-satellite constellation, and Xingshidai-5 (‘Star Age-5’), jointly developed by Beijing Weina Star Technology Co., Ltd., and Chengdu Guoxing Aerospace Technology Co. Ltd., two private small satellite sector firms respectively also known as MinoSpace and ADA-Space. 

The launch is another manifestation of the Chinese national strategy of civil-military fusion, which includes facilitating the transfer of restricted technologies to approved firms in order to promote innovation in dual-use technology, with the light-launch and small satellite sectors seeing particularly intense activity. 

The launch follows last month’s first successful orbital launch by a Chinese private company, iSpace, which were preceded by attempts by OneSpace in March and Landspace in October last year, with a third launch of the Kuaizhou-1A, a missile-derived light launch vehicle from a state-run defense contractor, expected in August.

Smart Dragon-1 and TEL ahead of launch. Credit: China Rocket Co.

Rapid development, rapid response

China Rocket, a commercial arm of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) which is behind a number of traditional Chinese Long March vehicles, was established in 2016 with the aim of developing low-cost launchers while using social capital rather than state capital to fund rocket research and development. 

The company says development of the Smart Dragon-1, which can lift a 200-kilogram payload to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, began in February 2018. The payload capacity is comparable to the smaller, lighter two-stage Electron launch vehicle developed by the American aerospace company Rocket Lab.

The stated target price for the launcher is $30,000 per kilogram, according to officials, again comparable to price points for the Electron.

Tang Yagang, president of China Rocket, told state media that the company is aiming to launch another Smart Dragon-1 from Jiuquan before the end of the year, and a further four missions by the end of 2020. 

China Rocket states that Smart Dragon-1 can be manufactured in six months and readied at the launch site in 24 hours. A promotional video indicates that the satellite payloads are positioned between the third and fourth rocket stages, thus inverted and requiring reorientation following separation from the third stage.

Tang Yagang told China Central Television in December that China Rocket was developing a ‘Tenglong’ series of liquid propellant launch vehicles with a larger payload capacity than the solid-fuelled Jielong series and may also be reusable.

“We are exploring different technical methods that include retrieval of rockets by vertical take off and landing, and horizontal take off and landing. Now we have expedited the development of the technology to reuse rockets. Hopefully, in the coming two to three years, China’s rockets will adopt the technology,” Tang said.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.