HELSINKI — Rocket company Galactic Energy launched its second Ceres-1 rocket late Dec. 6, becoming the first Chinese private firm to reach orbit twice.

The four-stage Ceres-1 solid rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 11:13 p.m. Monday, successfully placing five satellites into a roughly 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). 

The launch follows the company’s first launch in November 2020, which made Galactic Energy only the second Chinese private rocket firm to reach orbit, following the success of iSpace in July 2019.

However, iSpace has failed with both of its subsequent orbital launch attempts, both in 2021. Galactic now plans five launches in 2022, the company says.

Ceres-1 has a diameter of 1.4 meters, a length of about 20 meters with a take-off weight of about 33 tons and has a liquid propellant upper stage. It can carry  300 kilograms of payload into a 500-kilometer SSO.

Galactic Energy states it has made a number of improvements to Ceres-1 since the first launch, improving the second and third stage engines and introducing carbon fiber composites, boosting thrust-to-weight ratio, payload capacity and overall performance of the launcher. 

A view inside the payload fairing of the second Ceres-1.
A view inside the payload fairing of the second Ceres-1. Credit: Galactic Energy

Five commercial satellites were aboard Monday’s flight. Tianjin University-1 is an infrared remote sensing satellite developed by Changguang Satellite Technology, a Changchun-based remote sensing constellation operator and spinoff from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ CIOMP.

Lize-1 and Baoyun are scientific experiment satellites developed by Changsha-based Spacety. Lize-1 is a test of a new platform and for constellation networking tests, with the involvement of two private companies. 

The roughly 20-kilogram Baoyun carries a GNSS occultation detection payload from Tianjin Yunyao Aerospace Technology Co., Ltd., and an intelligent computing platform payload as part of tests for a planned “Tiansuan” open-source platform constellation for providing LEO broadband and potentially future 6G services, in partnership with Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. The satellite also carries an experiment payload for Beihang University and a Xiaomi consumer camera.

Golden Bauhinia-5 is a remote sensing satellite developed by Starwiz (Zhongke Xingrui Technology (Beijing) Co., Ltd.) for the Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group Limited (HKATG). The final passenger was the Golden Bauhinia-1 (03) remote sensing satellite developed by Beijing-based ZeroG Lab for HKATG. 

The second Ceres-1 rocket was also sponsored by Ping An Bank, seeing the name appearing on the rocket. 

The successful second launch provides Galactic Energy with the opportunity to establish itself as a reliable launch service provider within China’s emerging commercial space sector. Landspace, OneSpace and iSpace have all suffered failures with solid rocket launch attempts.

The firm has apparently been working on being able to expand on its success so far and ramp up the launch rate.

“Galactic Energy is the first domestic private firm to reach a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit, but it is not an issue of getting into orbit or how high the orbit is which is key to realizing the real industrialization of commercial rockets. It is instead being able to achieve continuous and stable launch of rockets and large-scale rocket production at low cost,” Galactic Energy CEO Liu Baiqi said in a post-launch statement.

The firm is also targeting late 2022 to early 2023 for the first flight of Pallas-1, a reusable kerosene-liquid oxygen launcher. Pallas-1 will be capable of lofting 5,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit or 3,000 kilograms to 700-km SSO.

Galactic Energy recently assembled the first 50-ton-thrust Cangqiong kerolox engine in preparation for full system testing. Seven Cangqiong engines will power the Pallas-1 first stage, with a single vacuum optimized engine powering the second stage. 

China’s private launch firms have yet to make an orbital launch attempt with a liquid propellant rocket. Landspace’s methane-liquid oxygen Zhuque-2 could lift off in the first quarter of 2022, according to company CEO Zhang Changwu in a Nov. 18 interview

The Hyperbola-2 being developed by iSpace, featuring a reusable first stage, could launch in 2022. However hop tests expected this year have apparently not yet taken place. Space Pioneer and Deep Blue Aerospace are among others also developing reusable liquid propellant launchers.

The launch was China’s 48th of the year and extends the country’s new national launch record for a calendar year. The vast majority have been Long March rocket launches performed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., (CASC), with the exception of the Ceres-1 launch, three Kuaizhou-1A launches and two launch attempts from iSpace.

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...