Chinese space resource utilization firm Origin Space signs deal for space telescope

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HELSINKI — Chinese startup Origin Space has signed a contract with a satellite maker for development of an optical space telescope as a step toward future space resource utilization.

Shenzhen-based space resource utilization firm Origin Space penned the deal April 10 with DFH Satellite Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of China Spacesat Co. Ltd., which is ultimately owned by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), the state-owned main contractor for China’s space programs.

No details of the space telescope, named ‘Yang Wang-1’ (roughly ‘Look up-1’), nor the deal itself have been divulged. SpaceNews understands that launch is tentatively scheduled for 2021. DFHSat provide satellite platforms ranging from 10 to 1,000 kilograms in mass which have been used for a range of applications.

Origin Space, a private firm established in 2017, raised $7 million in October in angel round funding led by Matrix Partners China and Linear Venture. The firm stated that it would use the funds for space telescopes for multi-band observations of asteroids. Origin Space says detection of suitable asteroids is a first step toward utilization of space resources.

The Taurus-1 (Jinniuzuo-1) CubeSat launched September last year carried a small ultraviolet telescope belonging to Origin Space, designed for monitoring the atmosphere for impact events. 

The company was also understood to be part of a project with Hong Kong University to launch a 50-kilogram soft x-ray space telescope utilizing lobster eye technology.

Origin Space, founded by Su Meng and Yu Tianhong, describes itself as China’s first company dedicated to the exploration and utilization of space resources. It has reached cooperation agreements with a number of universities and research institutions, including the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) under CASC.

Space resource extraction faces both technical, financial and legal obstacles. Origin Space told SpaceNews following last year that fund raising remained a major challenge. “We’d like to have more long-term support to accelerate our progress. So the investors of this project need to have long vision and patience.”

U.S. company Planetary Resources launched a number of technology demonstrators before encountering financial difficulties. It was acquired by blockchain company ConsenSys, Inc. in 2018.

A comprehensive Chinese space law, expected for many years, has yet to be passed. Thus the country’s position regarding space resource utilization is somewhat unknown. 

However the National Space Science Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences has established a Research Laboratory for Deep Space Exploration in Luxembourg. The Grand Duchy has established a space law allowing companies based in the country rights to resources extracted from planetary bodies. The China National Space Administration also signed a framework for cooperation with Luxembourg on the exploration and use of outer space.

An executive order by the White House earlier this month is seeking to establish international support for the U.S. position that space resources can be used by companies and organizations, and to head off alternative international legal regimes. A new international legal regime to govern space resource extraction would require agreement of major space faring countries on interpretations of a range of issues.

In the civilian sphere, NASA announced April 8 that it had selected Masten Space Systems to fly a suite of payloads to the south pole of the moon in late 2022 on its XL-1 lander. Payloads include demonstrations of feasibility for future lunar resource utilization activities.

China meanwhile is set to attempt its Chang’e-5 lunar sample-return mission in Q4 this year. Two missions to the lunar south pole, named Chang’e-7 and -8, are expected to include in-situ resource utilization technology verification tests. An asteroid sample-return mission targeting near-Earth object 2016HO3 (469219 Kamoʻoalewa) has been proposed for the early 2020s.

Private and commercial space firms emerged in China following a 2014 government decision to open the parts of the space sector to private capital. 

At least 141 registered commercial aerospace companies, developing launch vehicles, small satellite platforms, remote sensing and communications satellite constellations, ground stations and various parts of supply chains had been established in China at the end of 2018, according to Chinese publication Future Aerospace.  

The sector has been assisted by further policy support and a military-civil fusion national strategy. The latter is designed to allow the transfer of technology between military and civil organisations to both facilitate innovation and reduce costs in supply chains.