Linkspace RLV-T5 rocket after a third launch and landing August 9. Credit: Linkspace/Framegrab

HELSINKI — Chinese private firm Linkspace has performed its most ambitious launch and landing test so far amid a flurry of activity in the commercial launch vehicle sector.

Linkspace Aerospace Technology Group, a private launch company established in 2014, carried out its third low-altitude untethered launch and landing test of its RLV-T5 tech demonstrator 10:30 p.m. Eastern August 9, in the latest step in developing a reusable orbital launch vehicle.

The 8.1-meter-tall, 0.65-meter-diameter, 1.5-metric-ton rocket reached an altitude of 300.2 meters during its 50-second flight before making a powered descent and vertical landing with an accuracy of 0.07 meters, Linkspace CEO Hu Zhenyu stated on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like service. The launch follows two tests reaching 20 and 40 meters in March and April respectively.

The latest test was carried out at a new facility in the Lenghu region of Qinghai province in the northwest of the country. Chinese magazine Future Aerospace states that the RLV-T5 is powered by five variable-thrust rocket engines which use ethanol and liquid oxygen, a propellant combination used by the German V2 rockets.

The company will move ahead to a kilometer-level test before proceeding to a larger RLV-T6 tech demonstrator rocket. A full test flight of the NewLine-1 orbital launcher, to be capable of carrying 200 kilograms to a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), is planned for 2021.

The RLV-T6 reusable tech demonstrator will be designed for reaching altitudes of around 100 kilometers (62 miles). According to Chinese press reports the RLV-T6 will be powered by ‘Lingyun’ 10-ton thrust methalox engines developed by Jiuzhou Yunjian.

Jiuzhou Yunjian is a Beijing-based aerospace startup founded in 2017 which last month carried out tests of the ‘Lingyun’ engine which the company says demonstrated deep throttling and restart capabilities. In June the firm tested the gas generator for a larger 80-ton thrust ‘Longyun’ methalox engine.

Linkspace is one of four entities considered to be the first wave of Chinese private launch firms. Whereas Landspace, OneSpace and iSpace have opted first to pursue and launch solid propellant launchers, Linkspace has concentrated solely on developing a reusable, liquid propellant launcher. 

Chinese NewSpace companies have received government support including technology transfer since a policy shift in 2014, but they will also face competition from traditional space and defense contractors. 

Enter the Smart Dragon

Chinarocket Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the main contractor for China’s space programs, is set to test launch its Commercial Jielong-1 (‘Smart Dragon-1’) solid microlauncher in August following transportation to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center late July.

Jielong-1 is designed to be “fast, agile and flexible” and capable of putting 150 kilograms into a 700-kilometer SSO.

The test launch will include payloads with involvement from NewSpace satellite manufacturers Beijing Qiansheng Exploration Technology Co., Ltd., and Beijing Weina Star Technology Co., Ltd., also known as Minospace, both founded in 2017.

Sea launch space port, solid competition

Further competition will come from the Long March 11 launch vehicle. Following the success of the first sea launch of the solid launcher June 5, CASC announced late July that it will work with the city of Yantai in eastern coastal province of Shandong to develop a port to facilitate frequent sea-based launches. 

The port will include four research and development centers for launch vehicles, satellite payloads, sea launch platforms and satellite data and applications.

The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC), a huge state-owned defense contractor and considers a sister company to CASC, is continuing with its own extensive space plans. It is expected to carry out its latest Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket (200 kilograms to 700-kilometer SSO) in August from Jiuquan.

Kuaizhou-1A is derived from CASIC’s missile technology and is the baseline for the larger Kuaizhou-11 (1,000 kilograms to 700-kilometer SSO), which could launch before the end of 2019, following delays. Subsidiary Expace has previously stated it will provide the Kuaizhou-11 at $5,000 per kilogram to LEO.

iSpace plans, crowded field

Back in the Chinese private launch sphere, Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Ltd., also known as iSpace, has said is looking to follow up its historic July 25 launch with up to eight commercial rocket launches next year, Reuters reports.

Vice President for Marketing and Communications Yao Bowen said the price tag to launch a rocket is 4.5 million euros ($5 million), understood to be referring to the Hyperbola-1 solid propellant rocket. 

Landspace, iSpace and OneSpace are currently developing new, larger launch vehicles, with Landspace aiming to test launch the Zhuque-2 liquid methane-liquid oxygen two-stage rocket in 2020. 

More recently established firms are also making progress. Beijing Xinghe Dongli Space Technology Co. Ltd., also known as Galactic Energy, is targeting March 2020 for its first orbital launch, with Beijing Xingtu Exploration Technology Co., Ltd, also known as Space Trek, understood to be planning a suborbital launch in the second half of 2019. With further actors also at the stage of testing engines, the field could rapidly become very crowded.

These launch companies will be fighting for commercial launch contracts, with CASC alone cleared to launch government payloads. While there are plans for numerous commercial low Earth orbit constellations from Chinese government and NewSpace satellite manufacturers, there is no sense of how many can or will be realized.

“Long term, China will have to somehow expand into other markets to survive,” Leena Pivovarova, an analyst at consulting firm Northern Sky Research, told SpaceNews recently.

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