Chinese space launch startups attract a frenzy of investment

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HELSINKI — A number of China’s emerging rocket companies have secured major funding rounds in recent weeks as competition to reach orbit intensifies.

Space Pioneer, full name Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., Ltd., announced “major strategic funding” on Feb. 8, led by state-owned investment vehicles and is targeting its first orbital launch this year.

The undisclosed funding round followed at least six other Chinese launch-related companies announcing funding rounds. 

The most notable is the $200 million announced by Galactic Energy in January, eclipsing the previous Chinese record funding rounds for launch companies.

Galactic Energy will use these for upcoming launches of the Ceres-1 solid rocket and the larger, kerosene-liquid oxygen Pallas-1 launcher, set for a first launch in 2023.

Deep Blue Aerospace, another company developing a reusable kerolox launcher, Nebula-1, secured nearly $31.5 million in funding announced Jan. 18. 

Its next move will be a kilometer-level, vertical takeoff, vertical landing test using the Nebula M1 test stage, following a successful 100-meter test in October.

Orienspace, founded in 2020, secured nearly $47 million in pre-A funding for its Gravity series of combined solid-liquid and later larger, reusable launchers.

Reusable methane-LOX rocket engine maker Jiuzhou Yunjian last month secured at least $15.7 million in new funding from Huaying Investment, Pufeng Venture Capital and prior investors Yunhe Capital and Zhongguancun Qihang Investment.

Jiuzhou Yunjian signed a deal with new startup Rocket Pi to supply engines to power the Darwin-1 reusable launch vehicle in October last year.

Meanwhile Expace, a spinoff from state-owned giant CASIC and operator of Kuiazhou solid rockets, announced late January it is working towards B round funding. 

Additionally, Space Trek, which is developing both liquid suborbital rockets and supersonic target missiles, raised tens of millions of yuan (10 million yuan converts to $1.57 million) for development of its products.

While funding in China’s commercial space sector appeared to be lagging somewhat halfway through 2021, the recent new rounds continue the apparent trend of large investment concentrated in launch firms.

Contest for contracts

The Chinese government opened the launch sector to private activity in 2014. In the earlier years business plans were vague, making note only of growing commercial opportunities. 

Many of the companies noted above now state China’s national Satellite Internet project and associated planned megaconstellation and commercial cargo transport to the under-construction Chinese space station as clear opportunities. 

The emergence of the two projects brings a level of certainty for both competitors and investors. A number of cities and provinces have since been looking to attract space startups to boost economies.

Demonstrating an ability to reliably reach orbit will be the next step. The quiet progress by Space Pioneer sees them join a series of contenders for launching China’s first private liquid launchers this year. 

The newly-secured funds will be used for the first flight of a reusable kerosene-liquid oxygen launch vehicle capable of carrying more than 3,000 kilograms to LEO named Tianlong, targeting a first launch in 2022. The Tianlong-3 rocket will be benchmarked against the Falcon 9, the firm says.

The company initially began exploring monopropellant engines, and reported plans for hop tests with its Tansuo-1 test stage in November 2020. It claims to have the only staged combustion engine among China’s private launch firms and to utilize 3D printing. What progress has been made and how close to a launch the company is remains to be seen. 

Space Pioneer did not disclose the amount raised but stated that it has now raised nearly 2 billion yuan ($314 million) over eight rounds. The firm previously closed a pre-B funding round worth “hundreds of millions of yuan” or at least 30 million of dollars, in July 2021.

China’s first private liquid orbital rocket launch attempt is expected to come from Landspace, one of China’s first private launch firms. It is currently preparing to launch its new methane-fueled Zhuque-2 rocket (6,000-kilogram payload capacity to a 200-kilometer LEO) at the national Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. 

Competitor iSpace could also launch its own, methane-liquid oxygen launcher, Hyperbola-2, this year. The Hyperbola-2 is designed to be capable of delivering over 1,100 kilograms of payload into a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit, or 800 kilograms when the first stage is to be recovered and reused.

CAS Space, a spinoff from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, plans to conduct its first launch during the first quarter with the ZK-1A solid rocket. China Rocket, spun off from CASC, states it will launch the first Jielong-3 solid rocket from a sea platform before the end of August. 

CAS Space, Expace and China Rocket are also  all developing liquid rockets, bringing added competition to an apparently crowded field.