While much of the recent media attention to spaceflight in China has been focused on the Tiangong 2 space laboratory and Shenzhou 11 human spaceflight mission, a new Chinese commercial spaceflight company quietly made its debut in Beijing on Wednesday 19 October.
The company, named China Rocket Ltd. Co., is a state-owned commercial aerospace manufacturer and provider. Its biggest shareholder is China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the designer and manufacturer of most of China’s Chang Zheng (Long March) series orbital launchers.
At the company’s opening ceremony, Hao Zhaoping, party secretary of CALT, revealed that China Rocket will promote a variety of rapid-reaction, low-cost, and high-reliability orbital launch services for the commercial spaceflight market, ranging from piggy-back launch service to the construction of an entire satellite constellation.
China Rocket is not an entirely new company. Its predecessor, China Asia Pacific Mobile Telecommunications, was originally created in 1998 as the Chinese participant of the multinational Asia Pacific Mobile Telecommunications (APMT) programme. Because of the U.S. government’s refusal to issue export permit for the American satellite manufacturer Hughes Space and Communications to sell its satellites, the programme was cancelled in 1999. Since then, China Asia Pacific Mobile Telecommunications has focused its business on commercial trading, import/export, and satellite ground systems.
In 2010, the company was one of the Chinese contractors for the LaoSat 1 geostationary telecommunications satellite programme.
In 2013, the company become China’s 22nd authorised satellite operator, licensed to submit applications for geostationary orbital slots.
In 2016, the company underwent a major restructuring and was renamed China Rocket. Its key business activities were changed to commercial aerospace manufacturer and space transport service provider, offering orbital launch services using the Long March family of expandable orbital launch vehicles. The company will offer a variety of launch service packages to meet the needs of different types of clients. These range from low-cost piggy-back launch services, to scheduled launch services, to be-spoke launch services for high-end customers.
By producing launch vehicles in batch production, China Rocket hopes to significantly reduce the launch cost and preparation time of its services. It has pledged to offer a 180-day launch campaign cycle, a minimum of 50 launch missions per year, a minimum of 1 scheduled orbital launch per year, and 30% lower in cost compared with current satellite launch services.
In order to achieve these pledges, China Rocket has introduced five expandable orbital launch systems: Naga-1 small-load launcher, Long March 8, and three unidentified launchers currently in development. The company is also hoping to initiate the development of a small-load reusable orbital launch system within the next 3 to 5 years.
In addition, China Rocket is also looking to offer space tourism, including using a spaceplane to carry up to 20 passengers for a suborbital flight. Powered by rocket engines burning liquid methane and liquid oxygen, the reusable spaceplane will use a single-stage, direct-to-orbit, vertical take-off and horizontal landing (VTOHL) arrangement.
Two versions of the spaceplane are currently in development. The first one is smaller 10-tonne-class design with a wingspan of 6 metres, capable of flying five people to an altitude of 100 km at a speed of Mach 6, giving 4 minutes of weightlessness experience. This design could make its debut flight as early as 2020.
The second is a larger 100-tonne class design with a wingspan of 20 m, capable of flying 20 people to fly to an altitude of 130 km at a speed of Mach 8, giving 4 minutes of weightlessness experience. This is significantly more people than any other commercial spaceflight firm has pledged to fly to date. In fact, the 100-tonne class spaceplane can also double as a small satellites launcher, with the help of a small rocket stage add-on carried on top of the vehicle.
One thing for certain is that China Rocket won’t be alone in eyeing the potentially lucrative commercial space market. Last month, China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation (CASIC) revealed its ambitious commercial spaceflight plan, which seeks to offer commercial satellite launch using its Kuai Zhou series solid-fuelled small-load launcher through its commercial company Expace.