HELSINKI — Launches conducted by commercial Chinese launch service providers could more than double those attempted last year, according to firms’ plans for 2023.
The more than 20 launches now planned by commercial launch service providers would notably eclipse the total number of orbital launches conducted by China in 2017, demonstrating the rapid growth in Chinese launch capacity and cadence in recent years.
The development could provide momentum to deployment of Chinese commercial small satellite constellations and have implications internationally for space traffic management.
China conducted a national record 64 launches in 2022, with 54 of these accounted for by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Other actors, namely Expace, Landspace, iSpace and Galactic Energy contributed 10 more, including a pair of launch failures.
CASC has declared its intentions to surpass 60 launches this year, but the companies above and a handful of new entrants are planning more than 20 launches of their own.
Galactic Energy performed a fifth successful Ceres-1 launch from its fifth attempt early January, establishing itself as a leading player in the sector. It now plans a total of 8-10 launches of the light-lift solid rocket in this year. This number includes one or two launches in the second half of the year from a mobile sea platform in the Sea Yellow using infrastructure established at Haiyang, Shandong province.
The Ceres-1 rocket has a diameter of 1.4 meters, a length of about 20 meters, a mass at take-off of about 33 tons and a liquid propellant upper stage. It can deliver 400 kg to low Earth orbit (LEO) or 300 kg to a 500-kilometer-altitude sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).
The firm’s Pallas-1 reusable kerosene-liquid oxygen launcher (5,000 kg to LEO, 3,000 kg to 700-km SSO) will have its test launch in 2024.
More immediately Space Pioneer (Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., Ltd) could become the first Chinese commercial launch firm to reach orbit with a liquid propellant launch vehicle. The Tianlong-2 kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket is now expected to launch from Jiuquan in Q1.
Curiously, the firm had initially stated it was developing a rocket using HCP liquid engines, using what it called a ‘next-generation’ green, ambient temperature propellant.
Expace, which operates Kuaizhou solid rockets for state-owned defense giant CASIC and its commercial space projects, is planning seven launches of its Kuaizhou-1A and larger Kuaizhou-11 rockets. Both vehicles had successful comebacks last year following failures.
Landspace, one of the early movers, made the world’s first orbital launch attempt of a methane-fueled launcher in December. The Zhuque-2 suffered an issue with vernier engines on its second stage, seeing the loss of the payload.
However the company was already engaged in assembly and testing of the second Zhuque-2 before the failure and could make a relatively swift return to the pad, depending on how investigations into the failure and requisite fixes proceed. The third Zhuque-2 will use an upgraded Tianque engine without vernier engines.
Another entrant, iSpace, could return to the pad with its Hyperbola-1 solid rocket. The Beijing-based firm has however suffered three consecutive failures since becoming the first Chinese private launch service provider to send a satellite into orbit in 2019. iSpace is expected to conduct vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) tests this year for its reusable methalox Hyperbola-2 rocket.
One of a pair of the most recent Chinese launch startups, Orienspace, aims to conduct its first launch with the Gravity-1 solid rocket in the second half of 2023 using a mobile sea platform. Notably the firm says the rocket will have a payload capacity to LEO of 6.5 metric tons, making it by far the world’s largest all-solid launch vehicle.
The firm is aiming to ramp up to 10 flights of Gravity-1 across 2024-2025, while also developing new launchers.
Another new player, Rocket Pi, could launch their Darwin-1 methalox launcher this year though the timeline for this first launch is not clear.
CAS Space, a spinoff from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, plans to launch three PR-1 (Lijian-1) solid rockets, following the success of its first launch in July last year. The company, also known as Zhongke Aerospace, recently outlined its longer term launch vehicle plans, including a number of familiar designs.
China Rocket, which falls under the aegis of CASC, will also be in action. It will perform more launches of its Jielong-3 rocket in 2023, which debuted with a sea launch in 2022.
The role which this new launch capability might play could be largely restricted to domestic contracts, with international export regulations limiting the sending of satellites to China for launch.
“I don’t expect these Chinese commercial launchers to have a large effect on the international satellite launch market in the near or medium term future. In my view they are primarily targeting domestic Chinese markets or customers,” Ian Christensen, director of private sector programs at the Secure World Foundation, told SpaceNews.
Christensen says these firms likely will be targeting providing launch services for the many private aerospace constellations under development in China, such as those by GalaxySpace, Changguang Satellite’s Jilin-1 constellation, Guodian Gaoke, MinoSpace and more.
“If the planned launch tempo for 2023 is successful it might represent the opening of capability that would provide momentum to deployment of Chinese small satellite constellations.”
This would however have some international repercussions, such as in the realm of space traffic management.
“It would represent an increase in operators and satellites in a LEO environment which is already becoming more complex, and would thus place greater emphasis on the need for both sharing of space safety data and for satellite operator coordination channels between the U.S. and China,” says Christensen.
The emergence of Chinese commercial space companies began in late 2014 when the country opened portions of the space sector to private capital, largely in response to the developments observed in the United States, exemplified by companies such as SpaceX and Planet.
This move has spurred the creation of hundreds of space-related companies engaged in a range of activities, including launch, satellite operation and manufacture, ground stations, downstream applications, and more.
The Chinese government has since enacted further measures to foster its commercial space sector, including policy support and guidance and a military-civil fusion national strategy which allows technologies to move between approved entities.