View profile

China Space News Update #16: Kuaizhou-1A launch failure, Moon rocket plans, Chang'e-3 is alive and more

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones
A weekly roundup of developments in the nebulous but energetic Chinese space sector. Created by freelance space reporter and correspondent Andrew Jones.
Here’s the roundup for 13-19 December 2021 – and wishing you all a very happy holiday period. Thanks for reading – and feel free to get in touch with comments, feedback and suggestions.

A colourised image of Comet Leonard and other space phenomena captured by Origin Space's Yangwang-1 satellite.Credit: Zhuoxiao Wang/Origin Space
A colourised image of Comet Leonard and other space phenomena captured by Origin Space's Yangwang-1 satellite.Credit: Zhuoxiao Wang/Origin Space
This week: Kuaizhou-1A launch failure, Tianlian-2 launch,
An Expace Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket failed after launch at 02:00 UTC Dec. 15, resulting in the loss of the first pair of navigation enhancement test satellites for Geely’s autonomous driving plans. Chinese state media confirmed the failure a few hours after launch, stating only that the flight was abnormal and the causes are being investigated.
The failure is the third for the Kuaizhou solid rocket in 17 months for Expace, which operates the rockets as part of defence and missile giant China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation’s (CASIC) space plans.
CASIC had announced plans to launch 7 times in the next three months for a range of customers, and to launch 12 Xingyun narrowband IoT satellites in 2022. CASIC had made a similar promise for 2021 in 2020, just ahead of a September 2020 Kuaizhou-1A failure.
Expace is very well funded, an established industrial base in Wuhan, Xingyun and other satellites to launch and other advantages. However, do the latest troubles open the door to the more private players in China’s launch sector? More: SpaceNews
Senior space industry figure and Long March rocket designer Long Lehao told CCTV recently that the new, Long March 5-derived, triple-core CZ5-DY/921 rocket could launch for the first time in 2026 and open a path to China putting astronauts on the Moon before 2030. More: SpaceNews
  • related: Expert: China preparing to land astronauts on moon (China Daily)
China’s 50th orbital launch of the year (China’s previous calendar year record was 39, in 2018 and 2020) sent a second new-generation Tianlian-2 data relay satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit, lifting off from Xichang on a Long March 3B at 1609 UTC Dec. 13.
NasaSpaceFlight notes that a Tianlian-2 k-band sat has a mass of 600 kg, delivers data transmission speeds up to 1.2 Gbit/second between the Chinese Space Station and mission control in Beijing, and a lifespan of 15 years.
Images of the launcher also reveal that a side booster included a parachute for constraining its drop zone downrange. On the topic of rocket debris, evidence of events has become much more scarce on Chinese social media during 2021 (which is not the same as evidence of fewer incidents…efforts are being made, however). Sources: CASC, CALT, CAST)
Commercial space updates
Rocket Pi launches biology experiment payload launches on suborbital HY-1 rocket. Rocket Pi’s first biology payload, Sparkle-1, was sent to an altitude of 250 kilometers by a new, suborbital rocket, HY-1, belonging to Shaanxi Huayi Hongda, which was established in September this year. The platform was provided by COSATS. Rocket Pi is aiming to develop reusable launchers, biology experiment payloads and spacelabs, and has even grander plans for the future. (Global Times, China Daily, 17.12)
  • Related: Rocket Pi raises “tens of millions of yuan” in a round led by “Hainan 100 Billion Investment Fund” for its Darwin-2 liquid launcher (first flight 2023)
Chongqing-based rocket engine firm TWR Engine says it recently conducted a rotating detonation engine full system test. Little information is known about the company or the specifics of its engines. The company was apparently previously based in Shenzhen but is now settled in Chongqing. (TWR Engine, 17.12)
A batch of seven new Jilin-1 commercial Earth observation satellites (Jilin-1 GF-04A and GF03D (04-09) have been shipped off and will soon be headed for space, likely on a Long March 11 solid rocket launching from the sea. (Jilin net, 13.12)
Interview with Space Pioneer CEO/founder Kang Yonglai, formerly of CALT and elsewhere, as well as an investor from the Innoangel Fund, which recently backed the firm. Reusable liquid launch vehicle maker Space Pioneer has spent the past couple of years working on its infrastructure and also wants to develop a spaceplane for point-to-point travel. The interview touches on the market, supply chains (focusing on the Yangtze River Delta), plans (inc. commercial cargo with Chinese characteristics, involvement in the local G60 Starlink plan), policy changes in China, cites Tsiolkovsky, and talks up the idea of the “overview effect.” (, 16.12)
Chinese hypersonic/spaceplane company Space Transportation announced Dec. 19 that it conducted its 7th and 8th flights of its Tianxing series vehicles between Dec. 17-19, with no further details provided (likely in part due to the sensitivity of such technologies). This follows a lot of recent launch (Tianxing-1 and -2 launches) activity and a $46m funding round in the summer to back plans for large-scale technology verification flights through 2022 and aims for a first flight of a suborbital space tourism vehicle prototype in 2023, followed by a first crewed test in 2025. (Space Transportation, 19.12)
Exploration, space station news
Zhang Rongqiao: Mars explorer. Engineer Zhang Rongqiao, lead of China’s first interplanetary mission, Tianwen-1, is profiled in Nature’s Ten people who helped shape science in 2021. (Nature (pdf) 15.12)
One month of Tianwen-1 remote sensing orbit: A latest excellent blog post from Daniel Estévez tracks and details Tianwen-1’s orbit around Mars. Analysis of a month of orbits since Tianwen-1 altered its orbit from data relay role to science mission shows that the orbiter is able to cover the entire surface of Mars every 20 days, while also having between 2-4 communications passes over Zhurong possible every 2 days. Notably, the latitude of Tianwen-1’s periapsis, or closest approach to Mars, keeps changing due to orbital perturbations, meaning that, over time, Tianwen-1 will be able to scan all of Mars during low altitude passes for the most detailed surveys of the surface. (Daniel Estévez, 17.12)
A striking image of comet Leonard from was captured by the telescope aboard Yangwang-1, a small satellite belonging to Chinese space resources company Origin Space and featured in NASA’s APOD. The image captures not only the comet and its tail, but also aurora, airglow, a meteor (spotting these has been a main task) and trails of two satellites. Origin Space says the Yangwang-1 space telescope is open to non-commercial use both by professional research and public outreach in astronomy. (Origin Space, 15.12)
Chang'e-3 landed on the Moon 8 years ago (13:11 UTC Dec. 14, 2013). And the lander is still alive.
Andrew Jones
At 13:11 UTC Dec. 14, 2013, the Chang'e-3 lander made China only the 3rd country to land a spacecraft on the Moon. Landing footage is cool in itself, but with no atmosphere & no features other than craters, there's no sense of distance. There's also a crater/dome illusion [CLEP].
Why will it take China's Yutu 2 moon rover so long to reach lunar 'mystery hut'? | Space
Political and institutional news
China’s manned spaceflight leaders talk with journalists (CGTN, CMSA, 18.12)
China’s Shijian-21 orbital servicing vehicle: The below is alleged (unverified) to be the mission patch for the clandestine Shijian-21 spacecraft and its later-released small companion out at geostationary orbit. If so, its offers a few clues: The spacecraft could use a net, like the RemoveDEBRIS mission; the figure appears to be a Chinese god named Erlang Shen (二郎神), with a three-pointed lance (which could correspond to three robotic arms required for servicing) and his faithful hound, which could represent the subsatellite released by Shijian-21. Erlang Shen is said to have a third eye on his forehead (and just about discernible here) referred to as the “eye of heaven,” which could be a nod to a laser or guidance system, but this is all very speculative. The apparent debris mitigation test has been conducted with a lack of transparency, attracting attention and some concern. See the new CASI report (also linked below) for a summary of what is known about China’s OSAM plans.
Articles, reports and other news
China’s Shijian-21 Framed as Demonstrating Growing On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) Capabilities – (CASI, 13.12)
Man accused of using his status as an engineer at the Canadian Space Agency to negotiate satellite station installation agreements with Iceland on behalf of a Chinese aerospace company (CBC, 14.12)
Houston, we may have a problem: Russia’s ASAT test and the limits of China-Russia Cooperation (Modern War Institute, 15.12)
2021 Xi'an Satellite Application Conference to be held Dec. 23 (
China’s future spaceplane may be able to take off and land at airports (SCMP (paywall), 19.12)
Did you enjoy this issue? Yes No
Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones @AJ_FI

A weekly roundup of developments in the nebulous but energetic Chinese space sector. Created by freelance space reporter and correspondent Andrew Jones.

In order to unsubscribe, click here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Created with Revue by Twitter.