HELSINKI — Rocket Pi of China has signed a deal with a liquid rocket engine maker for supply of engines to power its Darwin-1 reusable launch vehicle.

The deal, announced by methane-liquid oxygen engine maker Jiuzhou Yunjian Oct. 30, is for Lingyun-70, 70-ton (sea level) thrust engines with deep throttling capabilities and 12.5-ton (vacuum) thrust Lingyun-10 engines and is worth “tens of millions of yuan” (10 million yuan = $1.56 million).

A single Lingyun-70 will power the first stage of the 2.25-meter-diameter Darwin-1 launcher with a Lingyun-10 engine on the second stage.

Rocket Pi secured financing of tens of millions of yuan in July. That report also stated that Darwin-1 was slated for a test flight in early 2023.

The launcher was previously stated to be capable of carrying 270 kilograms into low Earth orbit or 150 kg into a sun-synchronous orbit. However, these earlier plans also indicated that the Darwin-1 first stage would use five Lingyun-10 engines instead of a single Lingyun-70.

New Chinese launch entrant Rocket Pi announced itself in March, presenting plans to develop Darwin-1 and a larger, medium-lift launcher. It also stated plans to launch the “Sparkle-1” biology experiment payload on a Long March rocket in late 2021 as well as launching what was described as an orbital space biology lab around 2025.

Founder Cheng Wei also hinted at grander plans including contributing to the development of an “Earth-moon space economic zone,” a notion put forward by the leader of China’s main space contractor, CASC. Rocket Pi was co-founded by Zhuang Fengyuan, a professor of space life sciences at Beihang University. 

Jiuzhou Yunjian is a Beijing-based aerospace startup founded in 2017. This year JZJY has conducted numerous tests of its Lingyun-10 and Lingyun-70 engines, including full hot fire and restart tests

Jiuzhou Yunjian as carried out hot fire restart tests for its Longyun 80tn-thrust methane-liquid oxygen engine. Deep throttling and long hot fire tests to follow as steps towards reusable engine.

— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) May 24, 2021

JZYJ also secured an undisclosed amount of funding in January in a round led by Zhongguancun Qihang Investment. The investment fund belongs to Zhongguancun Development Group, a hi-tech commercialization platform backed by the Beijing government and part of efforts to support the Zhongguancun technology innovation hub in Beijing’s Haidian District.

Jiuzhou Yunjian previously signed a contract with Linkspace in 2019 following the success of the latter’s 300-meter-altitude hop test with an ethanol-powered tech demonstrator. JZYJ were to supply 10-ton-thrust engines for a larger tech demonstrator as a next step towards an orbital launch vehicle. 

Linkspace has been quiet ever since however, with the recent exception of a recruitment notice posted in March this year.

Another new Chinese launch startup, Deep Blue Aerospace, conducted its own 100-meter-level vertical landing and vertical takeoff test earlier this month using a kerosene-LOX powered test article.

Rocket Pi and Deep Blue Aerospace are just one of a number of Chinese private launch companies developing reusable launchers. Others include early movers in the Chinese commercial sector Landspace and iSpace, along with newer entrants such as Space Pioneer and Galactic Energy.

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...