A solar-electric propulsion thruster in development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is being considered as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

HELSINKI — A Chinese satellite electric propulsion company has secured multi-million yuan angel round financing amid a proliferation of Chinese constellation plans.

Kongtian Dongli (“Aerospace propulsion”) was established in March 2022. The round was led by  Jinshajiang Hongyu and MiraclePlus, according to Chinese media reports.

The company’s main products are Hall thrusters and microwave electric propulsion systems, with an on-orbit test of the latter planned before December this year. 

Few entities are engaged in propulsion for small satellites in China, but the demand for such systems is apparent. 

China has established a state-owned enterprise to manage a national satellite internet constellation of up to 13,000 satellites. China SatNet has been engaging with commercial companies as it develops a blueprint for constructing the “Guowang” constellation. 

Notably, these and other small satellites will be required to have onboard propulsion to reduce the chances of collision and mitigate the issue of debris in low Earth orbit.

A “notice on promoting the orderly development of small satellites” (Chinese) issued in May 2021 states that small satellites should be capable of collision avoidance maneuvers, as well as lowering orbits following the end of missions. State departments may take relevant “appropriate measures” if a company does not track, report on, and deorbit its satellites.

A number of commercial actors, sometimes in partnership with state-owned groups, are also developing low Earth orbit constellations for communications, remote sensing, navigation enhancement and more. 

The core of Kongtian Dongli’s personnel come from China’s state-owned space sector, many of which have previously been engaged in domestic satellite electric propulsion research and development. The company is also engaged in the development of ramjet engines for both military and civilian uses. 

China’s traditional space sector has demonstrated capabilities in ion propulsion, with the Shanghai Spaceflight Power Machinery Institute, the Center for Space Science and Applied Research (CSSAR) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Lanzhou Institute of Physics have all developed electric propulsion systems, some of which are now operational on the Chinese space station.

Northwestern Polytechnical University, Beihang University and Tsinghua University are also engaged in research. 

Spacety, a Changsha-based small satellite startup, has successfully tested in orbit iodine thrusters developed by French startup ThrustMe, and has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Italian propulsion firm T4i.

Spacety recently tested a xenon hall thruster provided by the giant state-owned enterprise China Electronics Technology Group (CETC) on its Chaohu-1 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite. Spacety is working with CETC’s 38th institute to build a 96-satellite “Tianxian” SAR constellation.

China has been seeking to foster a commercial sector with sustainable supply chains and ecosystems, including launch, small satellites and downstream applications. 

Electric propulsion is another area in which new capabilities and mass manufacturing are required to support nascent commercial space activities, with others such as space situational awareness (SSA) likely to see new entrants as the sector grows.

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...