While much attention has been given to the success of China’s government-sponsored space programme, the Chinese space industry is now unveiling ambitious plans to expand into the commercial market, providing services ranging from low-cost satellite launches to Earth imaging and telecommunications for commercial users.
Born in the late 1950s to support China’s missile programme, the Chinese space industry has been traditionally focusing on providing satellite launch services for the Chinese military and government agencies, as well as foreign governments and big corporations. Now the industry wants to compete with the like of SpaceX in the commercial market, not only just for a share of the commercial space launches, but also to launch and operate its own satellites to provide value-added services.
The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), the country’s largest maker of tactical missiles and air defence missile systems, created a commercial company in the name of Expace Technology Corporation in April this year to provide commercial launch service. Expace plans to build the Kuaizhou series solid-fuel launch vehicles at the proposed spacecraft manufacturing facility in Wuhan, Hubei Province. With a total investment of RMB 150 billion (US $22.47 billion), the facility is expected to produce up to 50 launch vehicles and 140 satellites by 2020.
The Kuaizhou (KZ) series solid-fuel small-load launch vehicles has been developed by the CASIC 4th Academy. The basic variant KZ launcher has already made two successful launches since 2013. The improved KZ-1A is due to make its debut flight later this year. The more powerful KZ-11 and KZ-21 are also currently in development.
However, the CASIC’s ambition is far beyond commercial satellite launches. The corporation recently revealed its five key commercial programmes, covering the entire spectrum from high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to near-space stratosphere airships, to Low-Earth Orbit small-satellite constellations.
Project Feiyun envisages using high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs to form an aerial-based regional communication network that can provide emergency communications and surveillance for ground users.
Project Kuaiyun envisages using near-space stratosphere airships to create a rapid-deployment Local Area Network (LAN) for emergence uses.
Project Xingyun will build a global narrowband communications satellite constellation consisting of 48 micro communications satellites and 9 micro relay satellites operating in LEO by 2020, providing a mobile communications network for users at any location between 55° North and 55° South in the world. Terminals of the network can be embedded into various devices to create a global mobile Internet of Things (IoT), as well as existing smart phones to allow users to send/receive text messages from any location.
Project Hongyun will build a global wideband communications satellite constellation consisting of 156 satellites operating from 1,000 km LEO. The constellation will provide Ka-band communications to allow mobile broadband Internet access from anywhere in the world. The first experimental satellite is due for launch in 2017, and four operational satellites will be launched before 2019. The first phase of the project is expected to complete by 2021.
Project Tengyun is the most ambitious of the all, aiming to develop a two-stage, horizontal take-off and landing (HTOL), reusable spaceplane system by 2030. The first-stage aircraft will carry the orbiter to fly to an altitude of 30—40 km, where the orbiter is released and then uses its own power to enter the orbit. Upon completing its mission, the orbiter will re-enter the Earth atmosphere and land on the runway.
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the dominating player in China’s space market, plans to continue providing commercial satellite launches using its new-generation Chang Zheng (Long March) launch vehicles, ranging from the small-load CZ-6 and CZ-11, to the medium-lift CZ-7 and CZ-8, to the heavy-lift CZ-5. The corporation is already offering an ‘in-orbit delivery’ model to launch satellites for developing countries with some success, and may even begin to erode the market share of other players in the commercial launch market.
In addition, the corporation is planning to compete with the like of GeoEye Inc. to offer sub-metre grade satellite imageries for commercial users. The proposed commercial remote-sensing satellite constellation will consist of 16 electro-optical imaging (0.5 m resolution) satellites, 4 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, 4 high-end electro-optical imaging satellites, and a number of video imaging satellites. The first two satellites are due to be launched later this year, with a second pair scheduled for launch in 2017.