HELSINKI — The coastal cities of Ningbo and Wenchang are planning construction of new commercial spaceports to meet growing demand for launch in China.

The eastern port city of Ningbo in eastern Zhejiang province has committed a total investment of 20 billion yuan ($3 billion) to establish a spaceport at Xiangshan, according to reports Wednesday. It is to be capable of launching up to 100 missions per year.

The spaceport will cover 67 square kilometers, consisting 35 square kilometers for launch sites and 32 square kilometers for support facilities. The site will be situated on the eastern coast and at a similar latitude to China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center and Cape Canaveral in Florida.

A Zhejiang province engineering company won a tender April 1 for construction of the launch complex, according to a document published on the Administrative Committee of the Ningbo Free Trade Zone website.

A wider industrial base including a research and development, manufacturing, and satellite data application centers will also be based at Xiangshan’s Ningbo Aerospace Science and Technology Town, following a strategic cooperation framework agreement signed in December by the Ningbo municipal government and the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology.

Growing launch, commercial sectors

Ningbo has approved the project following a large increase in launches by the traditional space industry in China and the development of a private space sector in recent years.

China took 37 years, starting in 1970, to register 100 orbital launch attempts. Launches 101-200 were carried out across 7.5 years, while 201-300 took around four years, according to Xinhua.

China launched 39 times in 2020 and the main space contractor CASC is aiming for more than 40 in 2021 with additional actors planning missions.

The country is planning to begin launches for a 13,000-strong low Earth orbit satellite internet constellation named Guowang in the next few years. A number of commercial satellite constellations for remote sensing, communications and navigation enhancement are also being planned.

The commercial spaceport would be expected to serve launch companies which have emerged since a 2014 central government decision to open portions of the space sector to private capital.

These include private companies such as Landspace, iSpace and Galactic Energy, as well as spinoffs from giant state-owned entities, namely the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

China’s current launch sites include three inland at Jiuquan in the northwest, Taiyuan in the north and Xichang in the southwest of the country and the new coastal Wenchang center on the southern island of Hainan. 

The above national level sites are administered by the People’s Liberation Army and host China’s civil and military launches. Jiuquan has also hosted all but two of the launches by Chinese commercial companies. It is also understood to be constructing a launch complex for new, commercial methane-liquid oxygen propellant launch vehicles.

A new eastern spaceport for supporting sea launches has also recently been established near Haiyang City on the coast of the eastern province of Shandong. 

A Chinese commercial spaceport was included in a list of national projects in the recently formulated 14th Five-Year Plan which covers 2021-2025, as reported by SpaceNews March 16. A location was not published however. 

More Chinese commercial spaceports?

Wenchang, on the island province of Hainan and site of China’s coastal launch center developed for large, new-generation Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets, is also backing the construction of an “integrated and open” launch center to meet commercial launch demand.

China News Service (Chinese) reported April 8 that Hainan Province will, with the support and guidance of the National Development and Reform Commission and relevant ministries, increase its support for development of the Wenchang International Space City concept and promote the development of a commercial space center to meets the needs of the commercial space industry.

The announcement follows a move by the nearby city of Guangzhou to foster a major commercial space cluster. The city has attracted launch, satellite and applications firms to set up industrial bases in Nansha district, which could potentially bring launch opportunities for Wenchang.

A space industry expert told Chinese media Wednesday that Shaanxi province in China’s northwest also plans to build a launch site.

A report from Global Times, a Beijing-based state newspaper, cited experts calling for caution in pushing ahead with new launch centers, noting challenges in hiring experienced teams, market uncertainty, new technologies and capacity of large launchers like the Long March 5. 

Conversely Dou Xiaoyu, vice chairperson at CASIC, in March called for a Chinese commercial spaceport project in order to meet an expected surge in demand for space launch services.

Dou  also noted that launch-related policies and regulations have yet to be promulgated and perfected to support commercial launch in China.

New coastal spaceports would also help ameliorate the issue of falling rocket debris from launches at inland launch centers. Rocket stages occasionally fall in inhabited areas, bringing risks as well as expensive and disruptive pre-launch precautions and post-mission clear up.

The China National Space Administration stated in 2018 that the construction of an open and shared commercial space launch site was being explored (Chinese). 

Startup companies Landspace, iSpace, OneSpace and Galactic Energy have since attempted orbital launches, while Expace and China Rocket, spinoffs from CASIC and CASC respectively, have also launched rockets. 

CAS Space, a CAS spinoff, and private firms Deep Blue Aerospace are working towards their first launches for later in 2021.

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...