At long last, China has its "SpaceX" -- a privately operated Chinese space company with a proven capability to put satellites in orbit.
Last week, Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Ltd. (mercifully abbreviated "iSpace") launched its Hyperbola-1 rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, putting an "amateur radio satellite" and three smaller payloads into Low Earth Orbit. Hyperbola is a 68-foot-tall rocket comprising thee solid rocket stages capped with a liquid-fueled fourth stage. It is not reusable, although iSpace is said to be working on reusable technology as well.
Who did that?
iSpace is one of just a number of small space start-ups that have sprung up in the wake of China's landmark 2014 policy to "encourage private capital's participation in China's construction of civilian space infrastructure."
SpaceNews.com reports that iSpace backers include Beijing-based venture capital firms CDH Investments and Matrix Partners China, as well as tech giant Baidu. Last week's launch was further underwritten by Chinese car company Chang'an Automobile Co, which paid for the mission in exchange for the right to name the launch vehicle.
So while technically "private," iSpace does have a lot of friends -- a situation quite different from SpaceX, which has mostly gone it alone in its early years, even feuding with the space "establishment" over a perceived preference among government agencies to award contracts to incumbent space provider United Launch Alliance.
Indeed, iSpace's friendships may even extend to the Chinese government itself, which has an interest in subsidizing the birth of a private spaceflight sector to compete with SpaceX internationally. In a press release that followed last week's flight, iSpace reportedly "thanked" state-owned defense contractors China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation for their support, as well as government regulator "SASTIND" and China's Central Military Commission.
Other entrants in China's space race
Nor is iSpace the only private Chinese space company with its sights on the stars. In fact, a whole series of space start-ups have sprung up to try to claim the title of "China's SpaceX." These include:
- Shenzen-based Link Space, which for at least the past two years has been developing a rocket dubbed "New Line-1." Designed to start launching 200-kilogram payloads into orbit for a $2.25 million fee in 2021, Link Space actually operates more in the sphere of "small launch" providers such as Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, rather than in multi-ton-payload space like SpaceX. However, in a nod to SpaceX, Link Space is designing its small rocket to be reusable, and even conducted a successful 20-meter "hover" test of the New Line back in March.
- Beijing-based Landspace is another of China's early contenders. Last October Landspace failed to put its first Zhuque-1 solid-fueled rocket into orbit. But it's already rebounding from that failure, and working on a new liquid methane-liquid oxygen engine to power its two-stage Zhuque-2 launch vehicle. If successful, the new rocket could begin delivering four-ton payloads to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as early as 2020.
- Beijing Xinghe Dongli Space Technology Co. Ltd. -- curiously nicknamed "Galactic Energy", despite those words showing up nowhere in its official name -- is testing an RP-1/liquid oxygen rocket it calls Pallas-1, also supposedly rated for four tons to LEO. It's not expected to begin flying before 2022, however.
- At one point, Beijing OneSpace Technology Co., Ltd. ("OneSpace") had even more ambitious plans, and was aiming to begin launching 200-kg payloads with its new 62-foot tall "OS-M1" rocket this year, and do as many as 10 commercial missions before the year was through. Its four-stage rocket, however, failed just 45 seconds into its maiden flight in March, and hasn't flown again since.
And just in case none of those work out, state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation has an ace in the hole, having spun off "China Rocket Co. Ltd." as yet another "private" rocket company -- albeit one that "inherits 60-years' experience in Chinese aerospace and cooperation networking," according to ChinaDaily.com.
What does it mean for space investors?
The clear impression one gets is that China is throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks. So far, iSpace is the only one to have successfully "stuck" a satellite in orbit, but given the number of strands being hurled -- and the amount of money too, I suspect -- I would be surprised if we don't see another success or three before this year is out.
What this means for America's space companies -- both established players such as United Launch Alliance and upstarts such as Rocket Lab (which has a U.S. subsidiary) and Vector (a homegrown analog to Rocket Lab) -- is less certain.
On the one hand, competition is certainly increasing. On the other hand, at the rate Chinese rockets are flaming out, I wouldn't expect to see a lot of international clients rushing to place orders with the upstarts -- regardless of the size of their rockets. That being said, it's still early days for the Chinese private space program. As its technology and success rate improve, these companies could still pose a threat.
Remember: Less than a decade ago, SpaceX hadn't put a rocket into orbit either.