Mystery surrounds Chinese private rocket launch attempt
Updated 1:53 p.m. following confirmation of launch failure.
Updated Aug. 4 with the cause of failure from iSpace.
HELSINKI — Chinese private firm iSpace conducted a launch of a Hyperbola-1 solid rocket early Tuesday but status of the mission remained unclear for hours after liftoff.
The Hyperbola-1 four-stage solid rocket lifted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at around 3:50 a.m. Eastern (15:50 local time) August 3.
The launch was tacitly revealed ahead of time via airspace closure notices. The first signs of an issue with the launch came with the early deletion of amateur footage from Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo.
A successful launch to a sun-synchronous orbit would normally be reported within an hour of launch. Neither the firm nor Chinese state media had issued a report on the situation by 8:00 a.m. Eastern. Chinese state media later confirmed that the satellite “did not enter orbit as scheduled.”
The next day iSpace revealed that the payload fairing had failed to separate properly resulting in the single satellite being unable to reach its intended orbit. While the rocket and staging performed well, the issue apparently prevented the spacecraft from reaching orbital velocity.
The failure is the second loss in a row for iSpace, which is one of China’s first and most financially backed commercial launch companies. Last year the company raised $173 million in series B round funding for new launcher series. However a planned IPO has not materialized.
The first Hyperbola-1 rocket successfully sent a satellite into orbit in July 2019, making iSpace the first private Chinese launch company to achieve orbit. The second launch, in February this year, ended in failure. Falling foam insulation was quickly isolated as the cause of the loss of the mission. Images of the first and second Hyperbola-1 rockets suggest significant changes in design between the two earlier launches.
Amid the setback, Beijing-based iSpace is meanwhile also working towards hop tests using a test stage for the reusable Hyperbola-2 methane-liquid oxygen launch vehicle. In April iSpace conducted lengthy variable thrust hot fire tests of its Jiaodian-1 engine.
The firm late last month also carried out tests on grid fins for the launcher. The 28-meter-tall, 3.35-meter-diameter liquid 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. A larger Hyperbola-3 series, including plans for an asymmetrical launcher variant, recently progressed from a from design to model development phase.
A second failure could have consequences in an uncertain, nascent yet crowded Chinese light solid rocket launch market. Galactic Energy, which became only the second Chinese company to deliver a payload into orbit in November, is currently preparing for two launches of its Ceres-1 solid rocket in the coming months, placing it in a position to demonstrate a measure of reliability.
To date, four Chinese private companies—excluding Expace, a spinoff from state-owned giant CASIC—have made six attempts to reach orbit with solid rockets. Two launches, from iSpace and Galactic Energy, have been successful. Landspace and Onespace suffered failures in October 2018 and March 2019 respectively.
Expace has successfully delivered numerous satellites into orbit with its Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket. The Kuaizhou-1A and Kuaizhou-11 had been grounded following failures of both launchers in 2020, but Expace today announced the final assembly of both a Kuaizhou-1A and a Kuaizhou-11 was underway.
China Rocket, a CASC spinoff, has developed and successfully launched the Jielong-1 solid rocket, but it has not flown since August 2019. The larger Jielong-3 is planned to have its test flight in 2022. Chinese Academy of Sciences spinoff CAS Space said earlier in the year that it aims for a first launch of the ZK-1A solid rocket capable of lifting 1.5 tons to LEO around September.
Chinese firms are also working on more complex liquid propellant launch vehicles, some of which are also aiming to achieve first stage reusability.
Others such as Spacetrek, Galactic Energy, Space Transportation, Rocket Pi and more are also developing liquid launch vehicles. State-owned spinoffs CAS Space and China Rocket are also working towards their own orbital liquid launchers.
China’s central government made a decision to open up launch and other sectors of the space industry to private capital in late 2014. The move is seen as a reaction to developments in the U.S. and the emergence of highly innovative and much more agile companies.