In early August, a rocket took off on its third-ever test, reaching a height of around 300 metres and hovering there for a minute before returning to Earth, completely intact. But this reusable rocket wasn’t owned by SpaceX or Blue Origin. It was developed by a Chinese startup called LinkSpace.
Since 2014, when the Chinese government gave the green light to private companies to operate in the space sector, more and more startups have been popping up. Now, there are around 100 of them, up from just 30 in 2018. Welcome to the booming world of China’s private space industry.
LinkSpace was the first on the bandwagon. Hu Zhenyu, LinkSpace’s CEO, was testing rockets at the age of 20 and was only 21 when he set up the company, the first of its kind, in 2014. He thinks part of the reason the industry has taken off so quickly is because of the number of young people involved. “Not only that, but Chinese investment institutions are also optimistic about the development of private space companies,” he says. This is partly due to the success of American counterparts, like SpaceX, which have proven private space ventures can work.
LinkSpace’s successful reusable rocket test may sound like a small achievement in comparison to what Elon Musk can do these days, but China is catching up fast. These reusable rockets have been developed in an industry which has had to evolve separately from the rest of the world, with no involvement from the USA and almost none from Russia since its beginnings.
New guidelines issued in July this year by the communist government have given these companies a sense of direction. They set out the standards that are required from companies building smaller rockets, or reusable ones, to altitudes at a limit of 200 kilometres, for research, manufacturing, testing, safety, and technology. The restrictions and guidelines outline the types of companies that come under their rule, and only mentions those building small or medium sized rockets.
It is unclear whether the rules are directly trying to prohibit anyone from developing larger rockets, which might compete directly with the state’s own activities. At the moment, at least, all of the Chinese space startups are developing ideas that complement what the state is doing, instead of competing with it.
One of the key players in the Chinese space startup scene is LandSpace, which is based in Beijing and came out of the Tsinghua University. It had its first launch of its a solid-fuelled orbital rocket, called Zhuque-1, on 27 October 2018, but the payload did not reach orbit. Another is i-Space, which is also developing medium-sized rockets. Zhuhai Orbita Aerospace Science and Technology and Beijing Galaxy Space Internet Technology are involved in the lighter side of things. They send small payloads into orbit, sometimes weighing only 1.5kg, to take images of Earth and collect data.
“The private sector’s getting into the more cost effective [projects], like micro and nano satellites,” says Lincoln Hines, who researches China’s space capabilities and its foreign policy, at Cornell University in the US. “The government tends to focus more on these larger, more expensive and perhaps less efficient types.”
Many of the startups employ people who used to work for the state, and many are still heavily involved with the Chinese government. But they’re not all working that way. “I think there’s a tendency to kind of generalise about all Chinese startups as if they’re all at the hand of the state,” says Hines.
“One person, he told me how it’s really terrible for the startup companies, because the Western media portrays them as like a pawn of the state” says Hines. “But then the Chinese media also wants to do that because, that way, they get credit for, like, everything they’re doing.”
Just like in the US, Hines says, some startups are more involved or dependent on the state than others. Some are also involved with the provincial governments, rather than the state government. “For several of them, the provincial governments are happy to bring investment to their areas, and they pretty much give them like a free hand to do what they want” says Hines.
But the industry is opaque, says Hines, and the individual companies’ links with the state are equally mysterious. But one example of one of the more independent startups is Spacety, he says, which is working on developing microsatellites designed for low Earth orbit. It has secured a significant amount of its investment from private funders.
Spacety’s CEO is Justin Yang, who founded the company in 2016 when he was 34. Since then, the company has launched four missions with the latest putting four satellites into orbit. Yang’s aim is to build a network of microsatellites that will offer services that larger satellites can’t, while doing so in a more efficient way than the state could. His target is to orbit at a low altitude that the larger rockets built by the government can’t really reach.
The link between the state and private companies is always going to be fuzzy, and there is no clear distinction between which are state-owned, and which are private, Hines says. Some may have contracts with the state or out-source the building of their components to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) which has been part of the government since it was established in 1999. CASC builds most of i-Space’s rocket components, but it remains a private company.
One thing is clear, Chinese space startups won’t be supplying the ISS any time soon. Since the Wolf Amendment, a provision added to US law eight years ago restricting Nasa from cooperating with Chinese companies, there is little these companies can do in China. Other countries are not as restrictive. There are restrictions from the Chinese government, however, on exporting rocket technology.
For now at least, LinkSpace is keeping its target on its home country. “The first step in LinkSpace is to use a recyclable rocket to serve the sub-orbital launch service,” says Zhenyu. “Most of this service is used for scientific research rather than satellite launch, so market demand will mainly come from China.”
It is difficult to predict how much the Chinese space sector will continue to open up in the future, says Hines. “It does seem like they’re giving a strong signal and they’re wanting to be more internationally competitive,” he says. “So, in some ways I would expect that this trend is going to continue. But I also think the Chinese Communist Party is often wary of seeding too much control to private companies.”
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