HELSINKI — Commercial launch firm Space Pioneer announced new funding this week and will soon take a shot at becoming China’s first such company to reach orbit with a liquid propellant rocket.
Space Pioneer, full name Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., Ltd., announced Feb. 15 that it recently secured “B+ and “Pre-C” strategic funding rounds. The company says it has now raised nearly 3 billion yuan ($438 million) in funding since its founding in 2018.
The company is also preparing for the upcoming launch of the Tianlong-2 kerosene-liquid oxygen medium-lift launcher from Jiuquan. A recent Chinese news report stated the launch would take place from Jiuquan spaceport, northwest China, in the first quarter of this year.
Space Pioneer conducted a wet dress rehearsal with the rocket at a site near Tianjin last month before transporting it to Jiuquan.
The Tianlong-2 is capable of carrying 2,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit (LEO) or 1,500 kg to a 500-kilometer-altitude sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). It features a 3.35-meter-diameter core, as with many Long March series rockets.
If successful, the launch would make Space Pioneer China’s first privately-funded company to reach orbit with a liquid propellant rocket, following a failed launch attempt of Landspace’s methane-liquid oxygen Zhuque-2 in December.
The company reaching the pad also reflects the progress and growth of a Chinese commercial space sector over the past decade, with a range of companies planning more than 20 launches in 2023.
A post on Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo suggests the engines powering the Tianlong-2 are YF-102 open cycle kerolox engines developed by China’s state-owned main space contractor CASC. The engines are manufactured utilizing 3D printing techniques. Tianlong-2 uses three engines in a triangular configuration.
Space Pioneer is already looking ahead to its next launch vehicle however. Funds raised in the two recent rounds are to be used for the development of the larger Tianlong-3 launcher and its rocket engines, construction of requisite launch facilities, and attracting talent.
Tianlong-3 will be a two-stage kerolox rocket with a reusable first stage. A Space Pioneer press release says the rocket will be capable of lifting 15 tons of payload to LEO and is targeting launching batches of up to 60 satellites per launch for China’s Guowang LEO communications megaconstellation. The company is targeting a first launch in early 2024, ramping up to a planned cadence of more than 12 launches per year from 2025.
The firm also plans a TL-3H version, which uses three cores in a similar fashion to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. It would be capable of carrying 68 tons to LEO. The TL-3M features a reusable spaceplane.
Space Pioneer and another recently emerging company, Orienspace, are moving directly towards medium-lift and heavier classes of launchers, whereas numerous earlier-established Chinese commercial firms looked to first develop lighter solid and liquid propellant rockets.
These trends appear to reflect early entrants initially looking to launch small satellites for private customers, being the apparent market, whereas China has more recently indicated that private firms can participate in launching both the national “satellite internet” project and sending cargo to the Tiangong space station.
Space Pioneer initially started out developing engines burning green propellant before changing direction. The firm also apparently scrapped development of the Tianlong-1 rocket.