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China Space News Update - Issue #1

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones
First up: An introduction, China’s plans for 2021, January recap

First of all, I’m starting this newsletter to help keep track of what’s going in the nebulous and sometimes frenetic arena of China’s space sector. There is so much going on, but often interesting developments in policy, a company’s activities or a insights into a mission are not reported or deserve more than a tweet. 2021 looks to be China’s most intense and active year in space so far, and so I’m looking to change the way I record and report on Chinese space activities and provide context, reference points and analysis for those interested. This 2021 preview and January recap is large, and the plan is for a weekly newsletter. The format and features are under development, and please feel free to send comments and suggestions.
2020 saw major Mars and Moon missions, completion of the Beidou constellation and a total 39 launches (including 4 failures) which also included a mystery “experimental reusable spacecraft” about which we know so very little. And yet, an even bigger year lies ahead for China.
2021: The Big Picture
40+ launches for CASC
China’s main space contractor, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) announced it plans more than 40 launches in 2021.
Links: SpaceNews, Xinhua, Chinese: CASC, SASAC,
Major missions include launch of the first space station module “Tianhe” (天和) and a docking hub. Launch via Long March 5B from Wenchang could take place as early as late March or early April (hopefully webcast). Tianhe will then be visited by the Tianzhou-2 *天舟二号) cargo and refuelling vessel, launched on a CZ-7 also from Wenchang. The first crewed mission, Shenzhou-12 (神舟十二号), will then follow, launched on a CZ-2F from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert. The three launchers are close to being ready to leave the factory and the three missions are expected during the first half of the year. Typically however China is typically cagey about laying out a detailed manifest.
The Long March 5B (Y2) to launch the Tianhe space station module. Credit: CASC
The Long March 5B (Y2) to launch the Tianhe space station module. Credit: CASC
Breakdown: Among the 40+ launches will be 10+ Long March 3B launches (for launches to GTO) , 3-4 sea launches of the Long March 11. The Long March 7A (failed with 1st launch in 2020), Long March 6A (upgraded version of the CZ-6, including two solid boosters (China’s first liquid-solid combo effort) and perhaps a test hop stage for the new Long March 8 which China wants to make reusable, notably by landing the core stage with the side boosters still attached.
Commercial space launches
It’s still early days for China’s commercial space sector, which was opened up in late 2014, but 2021 will be the busiest year so far, following 6 billion CNY ($933 million) investment in 2020 (Chinese), more than triple that of 2019.
The above planned 40+ launches does not include spinoffs from CASC and other state-owned space players CASIC and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
  • CASC spinoff China Rocket Co. Ltd. (中国火箭) is expected to launch its Jielong-1 and larger Jielong-2 solid rockets.
  • CASIC spinoff Expace (航天科工火箭) will resume launches of the Kuaizhou-1A and larger Kuaizhou-11 solid rocket after a pair of failures last year.
  • New entrant CAS Space (aka Zhongke Aerospace/中科宇航) plans to launch the solid ZK-1A rocket in September.
Nominally private firms with a bit more distance from the above state-owned enterprises will also be in action.
  • Landspace (蓝箭航天) is preparing to launch its Zhuque-2 liquid methane-liquid oxygen medium-lift launcher. It recently carried out payload fairing separation tests (Eng/Chi)
  • iSpace (星际荣耀) is working towards metre, kilometre and 100-kilometre hop tests of a VTVL test stage of its methane-liquid oxygen Hyperbola-2 in 2021. The firm attempted its second launch of the (changed design) Hyperbola-1 on February 1 but this ended in failure.
  • Galactic Energy (星河动力) aim to follow up the successful launch of its Ceres-1 launcher in November with two launches in H2.
  • Deep Blue Aerospace (深蓝航天), another younger startup, aims to launch Nebula-1 liquid launcher this year. Notably DBA has eschewed the ‘solid first, liquid second’ route taken by Landspace, iSpace and Galactic Energy.
  • OneSpace (零壹空间) aims for one suborbital and one orbital launch of its OX and OS series solid rockets in 2021. The company failed with an orbital launch in March 2019 and have yet to return to the pad.
If everything comes together (though it rarely does for space) China could be looking at 50+ or even 60 orbital launches across 2021.
China’s first independent interplanetary mission, Tianwen-1 (天问一号), is nearing Mars and expected to enter Mars orbit on Feb. 10. The rover (the naming of which is to be decided by vote and committee) will land in May (previously stated to be April)
Chang'e-5 (嫦娥五号) delivered samples to Earth in December but the orbiter is continuing on an extended mission to Sun-Earth Lagrange point 1, marking a first foray within Earth’s orbit. CE-5 is expected to arrive in mid-March to carry out orbit control, environment and other tests. A further adventure is possible (I’m betting on a hunt for Trojan asteroids at L4/5).
A notice on Procedures for Requesting Lunar Samples from Chang'e-5 was released by the CNSA on Jan. 18, paving the way for international scientists to apply for or visit samples for research.
China's January in Space
Jan. 11: CASC carried out a series of tests of components for a new staged combustion hydrolox engine for its super heavy-lift Long March 9. China is moving ahead with the massive SLS-like launcher with the aim of a test launch around 2030. (Links: CASC (Chinese), SpaceNews)
  • Also: 10-metre diameter aluminium alloy interstage ring (Xi'an news)
Jan. 8: Chang’e-4 (嫦娥四号) lunar day 26 began (tweet, CLEP)
A view from Yutu-2 in Von Kármán crater during lunar day 26. Credit: CNSA/CLEP
A view from Yutu-2 in Von Kármán crater during lunar day 26. Credit: CNSA/CLEP
Jan. 14: Tianhe module and Tianzhou-2 spacecraft pass flight acceptance review (CMSE, CASC). Note: Tianhe was ready to go for 2018 before the Long March 5 (Y2) failure.
Jan. 18: 10 shortlisted names for Tianwen-1 rover (ECNS, CLEP)
Jan. 18: Notice on Procedures for Requesting Lunar Samples from Chang'e-5 released by the CNSA.
Jan. 19: CASIC’s 2nd Academy satellite intelligent factory opens, will be capable of producing 240+ small sats a year (China Daily, Xinhua). Note: CASICs Wuhan Aerospace hub, also home to Expace and others, is beginning to take off.
Jan. 20: Chang’e-4 (嫦娥四号) lunar day 26 ended Jan. 20 (CLEP, Tweet). Yutu-2 has now covered 628.47 metres, meaning 27.92 m of driving in Day 26. Mission duration is now over 750 days since landing on the lunar far side on Jan. 3, 2019.
Jan. 20: Space Will (航天世景), a company linked to CASC and an official remote sensing data distributor, announces partnership with U.S. SAR satellite firm Capella Space (Space Will (Chinese)). Capella Space did not respond to a request for comment.
Jan. 22: Yet-another-planned-LEO-constellation alert: “Tianxun” (天巡) by Shanghai Beidou Satellite Navigation Platform Co., Ltd will consist of 72 satellites for a civil constellation for telecommunications and IoT sharing, navigation. Will target serving remote areas and Belt and Road countries. The company is linked to CASC subsidiary SAST. (CNS, Shine)
Jan. 24: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), has constructed 3.35m prototype carbon composite tank. The prototype offers added strength while also reducing mass by up to 30 percent compared with aluminium alloy tanks (CALT) – Note: CALT is one of two main rocket makers belonging to CASC, the other being SAST.
Jan. 25: Roscosmos continues discussing joint Moon base with China (TASS). Little new here, but a reiteration of ongoing talks that have sealed cooperation in the Chang'e-7 and Luna 26 missions.
Jan. 25: China to launch 7 Fengyun meteorological satellites across the 14th Five Year Plan. FY4B and FY3E to go up this year (SAST)
Jan. 26: Carmaker Geely officially launches an internet satellite project in Qingdao with a $637 million investment. This follows earlier announced plans for a LEO constellation for comms and augmenting navigation signals (Global Times). GeeSpace wants to use lots of 130 kg sats for this, with a facility in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, capable of producing up to 500 satellites per year.
Date/time (UTC) Payloads Launcher Site Sources
19.1 16:25 Tiantong-1 (03) CZ-3B XSLC NSF, Space, Casc
29.1 04:47 Yaogan-31 (02) CZ-4C JSLC NSF, Space, Casc
Commercial roundup
  • Jan. 12: iSpace to be listed on STAR Market (Jiemian, Global Times); Also: iSpace plans IPO, tests landing legs, (SpaceNews)
  • Jan. 18: Beijing to introduce measures to support development of “south rockets, north satellites” (“南箭北星”) (Fortune) Info: subsidies for commercial rocket and satellite research and development, production, and launch operations. As name suggests, rocket cluster in the north of the city, satellites in the north.
  • Jan. 19: 2nd Acadamy of CASIC opens satellite intelligent factory (CSN, 2, China Daily, Xinhua)
  • Jan. 20: Methalox engine maker Jiuzhou Yunjian (九州云箭) closes undisclosed funding round (JZYJ). JZYJ in 2019 signed a deal to provide Linkspace (翎客航天) with engines for development of its VTVL rockets. Silence from the latter ever since…
  • Jan. 21: Deep Blue Aerospace conducts structural tests on Nebula-1 first stage propellant tank (DBA). This followed a wet dress rehearsal of the Nebula-M test stage ahead of hop tests for the larger, VTVL kerolox Nebula-2.
  • Jan. 22: Aerospace Propulsion tests 2000N liquid RCS engine (Weixin) 22.01
  • Jan. 23: Commsat (九天微星) satellite factory in Tangshan on List of Hebei Key Construction Projects (Commsat). Also see Dongfang Hour’s discussion with Commsat’s Dong Lu.
  • Jan. 26: How Landspace attracted 2.6 billion yuan in five years (36Kr): How 400-employee-strong firm is moving ahead and aims to supplement the “National team” of CASC et al.
  • Jan. 27: CAS Space ground tests of engines, wind tunnel and more (CAS Space)
  • Jan. 28: Zhuque-2 fairing separation test (Landspace, tweet)
  • Aerospace Propulsion tests 600N bipropellant engine
  • Jan. 30: Landspace 400-sec tests of TQ-12 80tn engine (Weixin, Bilibili (video))
Zhongguancun establishes Commercial Aerospace Alliance. Info: Zhongguancun Science City in northwestern Beijing aims to foster an aerospace cluster. Support will come through policy support for enterprises, investment funds, rental assistance, R&D subsidies, household registration assistance for skills, and more. Links: Sina, CNS (Chinese)
Reports, articles
Myths and Realities of China’s Military-Civil Fusion Strategy (CNAS): Excellent, timely look at MCF, which has attracted a lot of attraction and hype. MCF is a key cog in efforts to foster China’s commercial space sector, allowing transfers of tech, expertise and so on. To give context: “China’s defense sector has been primarily dominated by sclerotic state-owned enterprises that remain walled off from the country’s dynamic commercial economy. At its core, MCF is intended as a remedy to this problem.” The article looks at myths and strengths and weaknesses of MCF but is not particularly focused on space.
Eye on 2022 (Part 1): Rising Stars in the Provinces (MacroPolo): A look at three former aerospace figures who have since risen through the Party ranks. There is a longstanding notion that aerospace officials, such as former CNSA/SASTIND heads Xu Dazhe and Ma Xingrui, have done well due to good records; corruption and corner-cutting would have otherwise been apparent in failure, given the extremely demanding nature of rocketry (e.g. SCMP, 2017).
Other news
Yuanwang-22 sets off for Tianjin (…to collect a CZ-7A?) (tweet)
GECAM (Gravitational Wave High-energy Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor) detects first Gamma-ray bursts, sends info to ground in minutes using BDS-3 to allow for followup observations (Tweet, SciNet)
Two SAST projects selected as pilot demo projects for integration of manufacturing & Internet development by MIIT (SAST)
Long March 8 debris discovered off Indonesia (Weibo)
Feb. 5 (~15:30 UTC): Long March 3B launch from Xichang, possibly carrying Tianhui-3. Note: Curiously, earlier Tianhui remote sensing satellites have gone to SSO, so rumours are this could be a synthetic aperture radar satellite intended for GEO…
Feb. 10: Tianwen-1 to enter Mars orbit.
Feb. 17 (18th UTC): Reading the Tea Leaves: Deciphering the Chinese Space Industry (SSPI, webcast)
Feb. 23: Report Release Event: Lost Without Translation: Identifying Gaps in U.S. Perceptions of the Chinese Commercial Space Sector (Secure World Foundation)
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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.

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