HELSINKI — Chinese launch firm Space Circling has secured more than 100 million yuan ($13.9 million) in funding to back its work on innovative engines to power commercial space activities.

Space Circling, also known as Shaanxi Tianhui Aerospace Technology Co., Ltd., secured the funding in December last year and announced the Series A funding Feb. 18.

Strategic investors including Changsha Kaifu District Zhongxin High-tech Fund, Mianyang Kefa Fund, Xi’an Fulao Fund, SIRI New Materials and Xi’an Talent Fund participated in the round. The latter is a local government-backed policy guidance fund. Such funds are used to deploy capital to strategic and emerging technologies such as space.

The funding will mainly go towards construction of an industrial base for the company’s rocket engines, including mass production.

Space Circling has been developing its Honglong-1 and Qiaolong-1 kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket engines since it was established in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, in March 2021.

The Qiaolong-1 is a staged combustion, tap-off cycle with two combustion chambers. It has no gas generator in order to simplify its structure, according to Space Circling. It is designed to produce 85 tons of thrust at sea level and able to fit five engines into a 3.35-meter-diameter stage — a standard sizing among Chinese Long March and commercial launch vehicles. Space Circling conducted a successful hotfire test of the engine Jan. 31.

The company aims to be mass-producing the Qiaolong-1 by the end of the year. This is in order to meet the current urgent demand for high-thrust liquid rocket engines in China’s domestic commercial aerospace sector, founder Liu Hongjun told Shaanxi Daily Feb. 18. 

The report did not touch on potential technical hurdles during further development, testing, and mass production phases of the innovative engine which may hinder progress.

Liu is a professor at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Shaanxi. The company apparently has local backing as well as experience from, and connections to, the state-owned space industry.

Liu was notably the chief designer for a kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket engine at the Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology under CASC, China’s state-owned main space contractor. The engine was developed to help power China’s new-generation launchers which debuted in the 2010s. He also served as deputy chief designer of one of these rockets, namely the Long March 6. 

Liu said in a statement on Space Circling’s webpages that the team aims to, “fundamentally reduce the cost of human access to space and promote the arrival of a new economic era in space,” as well as work hard for the “China Dream,” referencing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s concept of a strong, rejuvenated China.

Space Circling is also apparently planning to develop its own reusable launchers using its engines. The Huilong-1 would have a length of 38 meters, a 3.35-meter-diameter core stage and 2.25-meter-diameter boosters. It is to be capable of lifting five metric tons to sun-synchronous orbit. 

The larger Huilong-2 would be capable of carrying nine tons to geosynchronous transfer orbit or 25 tons to LEO.

Provincial support for space

Shaanxi hosts a number of major state-owned CASC institutes related to rocket and engine development and testing. A number of more recently-established commercial companies have also settled in the area. 

The province has moved to establish strategic laboratories to support companies such as Space Circling. The wider goal is promoting the integration of innovation and industry chains. Assistance includes technical support, talent guarantees and financial assistance.

This approach is far from unique within China. A range of Chinese cities and provinces are currently seeking to foster their own commercial space and other high-end and strategy technologies. Beijing and Shanghai have recently released action plans to support commercial space ecosystems. Beijing’s plans included committing to establish a “Beijing Rocket Street” including a reusable rocket technology innovation center.

Underpinning this, the central government identified the commercial space industry as one of several strategic emerging industries to nurture in December 2023. Supporting this sector could potentially enhance China’s overall space capabilities. It could also boost international ties, national prestige, and China’s influence in the global space arena.

China’s military-civil fusion strategy has helped the transfer of technologies between the military and commercial spheres in both directions. This strategy has helped Chinese commercial space firms in China progress, with assistance from state-owned space giants, following the 2014 central government move to open the sector to private capital.

China is looking to construct one or more low Earth orbit communications megaconstellations of more than 10,000 satellites each in the coming years. Deploying these satellites will require a boost in China’s launch options. 

A number of Chinese commercial firms are racing to develop and test reusable launch vehicles in order to fill this gap in overall national capabilities and earn launch contracts. 

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...