China’s response to Starlink and OneWeb first became apparent in 2020 in filings for just under 13,000 satellites with the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva. Beijng followed up by designating “satellite internet” a national “new infrastructure” project and establishing the high-level, state-owned China Satellite Network Group in 2021 to oversee the constellation project known as “Guowang.”

News regarding the progress of Guowang has been limited since then. The group signed an agreement with the government of Shanghai to foster the development of commercial space activities and set up two companies in the city of Chongqing as part of the project.

Guowang supersedes two earlier and much smaller LEO communications constellations named Hongyan and Hongyun, planned by China’s main space contractor CASC and its sister defense giant CASIC respectively. It also meant there was no room for similar plans proposed by Chinese commercial space companies.

However, the indications are that China’s emerging commercial space firms will have a large role in the project, both in manufacturing satellites and launching them to orbit.

 🇨🇳 See China’s LEO push looms over Western expansion efforts

In March last year, Beijing-based private firm Galaxy Space launched six stackable V-band satellites on a Long March 2C rocket. According to Chinese state media, the mission proves that, “China has built up the low-cost, batch development and networking operation capabilities of satellites, all factors necessary to build a satellite internet mega-constellation.”

Chinese private launch service providers have also begun noting the Guowang national satellite internet project as a potential source of revenue in news releases, suggesting that they will help provide additional launch capacity beyond that of CASC to build the constellation. This would provide emerging firms with important early revenue while also aiding national plans.

CASC is also looking at adapting the Long March 5B, capable of sending 25 metric tons of payload to LEO, for launching large batches of satellites for constellations.

Orange exhaust pushes a large Long March rocket from the pad at the coastal Wenchang spaceport, with white smoke billowing around lightning towers near the launch tower.
The Long March 5B, which launched China’s space station modules and source of uncontrolled first-stage reentries, could soon be used to launch series of small satellites for the Guowang constellation. Credit: CASC

China is planning another domestic record for launches this year. The country also has new commercial small satellite manufacturing capacity coming online, meaning 2023 could provide a much stronger indication of what Guowang will look like.

Elsewhere CASIC, which has set up subsidies to run space projects for commercial revenue, will also be looking to get back on track with its Xingyun narrowband Internet of Things (IoT) constellation of 80 satellites. In 2022, operator Expace recovered from earlier failures of its Kuaizhou solid rockets to conduct successful return-to-flight missions, paving the way for new Xingyun satellites to be sent into orbit this year.

Changguang Satellite Technology will continue to deploy remote sensing satellites for its under-construction commercial Jilin-1 constellation. The firm stated in November that it was expanding Jilin-1 from a planned 138 satellites to 300. Other commercial entities, including ADA Space, HKATG and the recently sanctioned Spacety are also expected to continue sending their satellites into space in 2023 for respective IoT, remote sensing and synthetic aperture radar constellations as China’s commercial space sector continues to grow.

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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...