HELSINKI — A Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket failed after liftoff late Tuesday with the loss of a pair of commercial satellites to test navigation enhancement for autonomous driving.

The Kuaizhou-1A light-lift solid rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 9 p.m. Eastern Dec. 14, as indicated by airspace closure notices. 

Chinese state media confirmed the launch failure hours later, tersely stating that the launch had failed and the specific reasons are being further analyzed and investigated.

The flight carried the first two satellites for Geespace, a subsidiary of automaker Geely. The pair were intended to test navigation assistance and connectivity for autonomous driving, according to earlier statements. 

The failure is a blow to commercial launch service provider Expace, a subsidiary of giant state-owned missile and defense contractor China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). CASIC is a separate entity to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which is the country’s main space contractor and operator of the Long March rockets.

CASIC and Expace had stated plans at a commercial space forum late November for seven launches in the following three months for a variety of customers. The Kuaizhou-1A will likely be grounded until an investigation is concluded and the causes isolated and addressed.

Expace had been encouraged by three successful Kuaizhou-1A launches across September, October and November, which followed the Kuaizhou-1A being grounded for one year as a result of a failure in September 2020.

CASIC and its subsidiaries also plan an 80-satellite narrowband constellation named Xingyun, with plans to launch at least 12 Xingyun-2 satellites in 2022 to form the second stage of the three-state constellation. It stated similar plans for launches of 12 Xingyun satellites back in 2020, before the previous KZ-1A failure.

Tuesday’s mission was the 14th Kuaizhou-1A flight and the second failure. The first launch took place in January 2017. The launcher consists of three solid stages and a liquid propellant upper stage. It is capable of carrying 200 kilograms of payload into a 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

The larger Kuaizhou-11 had a first flight in July 2020 which ended in failure. A return-to-flight has yet to take place. 

The struggles of Expace present potential opportunities for competitors in China’s emerging commercial space sector.

The failure follows a week after a second successful launch of a Ceres-1 light-lift solid rocket by private rocket firm Galactic Energy, which is one of a number of other launch providers emerging in China to compete for commercial contracts. 

Another state entity spinoff, CAS Space, is preparing its first launch for the first quarter of 2022, and has, like Geespace, established facilities in the Nansha district of the southern city of Guangzhou.

Expace however is one of the best funded launch firms in China and has an established industrial chain in Wuhan.

The satellites aboard Tuesday’s flight belonged to Chinese private automaker Geely, which plans to establish a constellation to provide navigation and connectivity services needed for self-driving cars.

Few details of the satellites had been provided, but Geely has put significant funds into the endeavor. 

Geely announced plans for a $326 million facility in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, in March 2020. It began manufacturing satellites in October, following license approval from China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Geely stated it had been encouraged by an NDRC decision to add “satellite internet” to a list of “new infrastructures” in April 2020, seeing an opportunity to establish an industrial chain including research and development, design, manufacturing, launch and market application for its own satellite network.

The Taizhou facility has an estimated production output of over 500 satellites per year, according to a press release. Geespace in September signed a deal with CGWIC of CASC for Long March launch services for its GNSS-enhancing and high-speed connectivity satellites.

A report in April 2020 stated that two Geely satellites had been transported to Jiuquan for launch in the second half of 2020, while the first satellites rolled out of Taizhou in late September. It is unclear if the satellites lost on Tuesday’s launch are the earlier pair, delayed by Kauizhou-1A launch issues, or a new set from Taizhou.

China opened portions of its space sector to private capital in late 2014. Policy support and guidance — including regulations for launch and small satellites and national strategies supporting “satellite internet” — as well as investment, from a mix of venture capital and government-linked investment vehicles, has followed in recent years. 

Tuesday’s launch was China’s 51st launch of 2021 and the third failure. China’s previous national record for launches in a calendar year was 39 launches, achieved in 2018 and 2020.

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...