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China Space News Update - Issue #2

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones
2021, week 5: iSpace launch failure, Tianwen-1 to arrive at Mars, news and commercial space roundup

The Big Stories
China’s iSpace suffers failure with second orbital launch attempt - SpaceNews
Launch of a Hyperbola-1 solid rocket by private company iSpace ended in failure shortly after launch on Feb. 1. Causes are being investigated, iSpace states.
iSpace was planning an IPO on the Shanghai Stock Exchange Science and Technology Innovation Board, is a science and technology-focused equities market. This may now be delayed, and other companies are understood to be considering an IPO.
The payloads were not revealed, though it is understood there were as many as six heading to SSO on this ill-fated ride. Beijing Ark Space Technology issued a press release (Chinese) to refute reports that its Ark-2 satellite was aboard the flight. It stated the launch service relationship with iSpace was amicably terminated in December (curious).
Also notable was an apparent change in design when comparing the first and second Hyperbola-1 launches. Iterative design, supply chain issues, or something else could be going on. Overall, this launch poses a lot of questions and minor mysteries. iSpace plans metre, kilometre and 100-km-level VTVL hop tests with a test stage for its methalox Hyperbola-2 launcher, so it may be a long way back for the Hyperbola-1 to pad, especially given many other light-lift solid launch actors in China.
This was the fifth orbital launch attempt by a nominally Chinese launch company (excluding SOE spinoffs). Landspace (Oct. 2018) and OneSpace (Mar. 2019) fell short before iSpace succeeded in July 2019. Galactic Energy succeeded with their first launch in November before last week’s failure by iSpace. All of these have been simpler solid rockets but Landspace, iSpace and Deep Blue Aerospace are closing in on debut liquid propellant launch vehicle test launches. These will prove even greater challenges and offer a gauge as to the progress and maturity of the technologies of these companies.
A launch failure is far from unexpected for new companies and launchers, but the event led to discussion about the chances of these companies and commercialisation of space in China.
Incoming: arrival at Mars
First image of Mars from Tianwen-1 at a distance of 2.2 million km. Credit: CNSA/PEC
First image of Mars from Tianwen-1 at a distance of 2.2 million km. Credit: CNSA/PEC
Tianwen-1 (天问一号), is nearing Mars and expected to enter orbit around the Red Planet (that’s greyscale above…) on Wednesday, Feb. 10, sandwiched between UAE’s Hope orbiter (arriving Feb. 9) and NASA’s Perseverance rover (arriving, landing Feb. 18).
On Feb. 5 CNSA released a first image of Mars at a distance of 2.2 million km (above). A fourth trajectory correction manoeuvre was also carried out at 12:00 UTC Feb. 5.
China has not revealed the timing of the braking burn that will aim to put the Tianwen-1 spacecraft into an elliptical orbit. However amateur radio operators tracking the spacecraft estimate Tianwen-1 will reach periapsis at ~12:00 UTC/7 am Feb. 10 following a long braking burn. Keep in mind this is an estimate.
The braking burn should start n the 20 minutes or so before this, then there will be loss of signal as Tianwen-1 goes behind Mars, and reacquisition of signal will come maybe 30 minutes later. Remember also that there is a light-time delay of 10.5+ minutes as Mars is currently around 190,000,000 km away, so we might not get news until ~13:00 UTC.
This is China’s independent interplanetary mission and orbit insertion is due a day before Chinese New Year’s eve. The feat will, all being well, be paraded in the traditional CCTV Spring Festival Gala, though likely not on a high-stakes live webcast (CGTN & CCTV (weibo) may be in play if there is coverage). While the space program is a symbol of national progress, leadership are keen to limit the potential damage of a high-profile failure (and have the means to withhold information).
Tianwen-1 consists of an orbiter and rover. However the entry, descent and landing (EDL) of the rover however is not expected until around May. It will target a primary site in a southern portion of Utopia Planitia, to the south of Viking 2 and northwest of InSight.
The orbiter carries 7 payloads: high- and medium-resolution cameras, a sounding radar, a magnetometer, mineralogy spectrometer, ion and neutral particle analyser and energetic particle analyzer. Objectives include surveying the ionosphere and interplanetary environment, detecting subsurface water ice, soil characteristics and surface structures, and Martian topography, surface compositon and geomorphology.
Tianwen-1’s planned initial highly elliptical orbit (400 x 180,000 km) may be related to use a Chang'e orbiter heritage 3000N engine being required to slow a larger, interplanetary spacecraft. The spacecraft will reduce this elongated orbit over time into a planned science observation orbit and for the rover EDL attempt.
The cameras will likely return images shortly after insertion. The Hi-res camera is capable of better than 0.5 metre resolution (greyscale) imagery from an altitude of 265 km, so these should be impressive shots. Colour images will be around 2 metre at nadir at similar altitude.
News roundup
Launch of the TJSW-6 satellite from Xichang, Feb. 4, 2021. Credit: CASC
Launch of the TJSW-6 satellite from Xichang, Feb. 4, 2021. Credit: CASC
Feb. 3: China Manned Space International Symposium in Hangzhou delayed until November (CMSE)
Feb. 4 (15:36 UTC) Launch: China launched the “TJSW-6” communications technology test satellite from Xichang on a Long March 3B. The classified nature of the mission indicates military applications, with rumours it could be a (potentially third) early warning system satellite in GEO for China. China’s fourth launch of 2021. Sources: CASC; reports:, NasaSpaceFlight
Feb. 5: Tianjin University unveils a prototype space arm for grabbing space debris. (Weibo, Xinhua) – this is one of the areas that falls clearly in dual-use, and could be construed to have offensive capabilities. However, seeing this in the open ahead of time is much better than the clandestine, announced after-the-fact tests like Aolong-1 in 2016.
Feb. 7: Zhongxing-9A propellant exhausted after 4 years and ended its service life (Chinese). The ZX-9A (ChinaSat-9A) communications satellite was launched towards to geosynchronous transfer orbit in 2017 but a third stage issue left it in a much lower orbit, requiring the satellite to consume its own propellant to reach GEO at 101.4 degrees East. The services it provided are being shifted to ZX-9 (launched 2008, 92.2° E) while a replacement, ZX-9B, is expected to launch before the end of the year for operator China Satcom.
Commercial roundup
Feb. 3: Satellite developer Commsat ( 九天微星) receives 100m CNY-level ($15.5 m) in strategic investment from the China Internet Investment Fund. As a first move, this also indicates the seriousness of the Chinese government is fostering “satellite internet” as part of the “new infrastructures” policy unveiled last April. Could this also be related to the mysterious planned 13,ooo-satellite “GW” constellation filed with the ITU?
Founded in 2015, Commsat had previously attracted 500 million yuan ($77.3 million) investors including state-owned AVIC Capital and a fund under Citic Securities.
Overall, this really is an fascinating area to watch, particularly alongside developments elsewhere. More: Caixin
Landspace, an apparent frontrunner in Chinese commercial launch sector, assembles first stage engines for its Zhuque-2 methalox launcher. 4 x TQ-12 80-ton-thrust engines power the first stage of the 49.5-meter-long launcher. Landspace secured $175m back in September to assist development and production. Flight test coming later this year, likely in H2. Video: CGTN
Smart Satellite announces procurement for 12 satellites for the SMARTSAT-2 LEO SAR constellation.
Feb. 5: OneSpace returned to action nearly two years after their MArch 2019 failed orbital launch attempt, launching the OS-X6 solid suborbital rocket. The 9.4-metre-long solid rocket flew f or around 580 seconds and traveled to an altitude of 300 kilometres.
The rocket again bore the name “Chongqing Liangjiang Star” after the Liangjiang New Area in Southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality, which has provided support to the company. in 2017 the firm reached an agreement with Chongqing Liangjiang Aviation Industry Investment Group to build its research and manufacturing base in the area. Others have also gained local and provincial support.
OneSpace has been quiet on the launch front but plans an orbital launch for later in the year. It has also been developing rocket components and a transporter erector launcher. A crowd of competition in the light-lift solid launch comes from Galactic Energy and iSpace, though both are looking towards liquid propellant launchers, as well as SOE spinoffs China Rocket, Expace and CAS Space.
Space transportation (凌空天行), founded in 2018 to develop reusable rockets utilising aircraft characteristics, tests landing legs (video: Bilibili)
COTS with Chinese characteristics? (Back to January…)
Jan. 6: China’s human spaceflight agency solicits proposals for transportation to and from the Chinese Space Station, a call also confirmed to be open to commercial companies. Source: CMSE (Chinese), report: SpaceNews
An image taken by Yutu-2 during lunar day 26 in January 2021. Credit: CNSA/CLEP
An image taken by Yutu-2 during lunar day 26 in January 2021. Credit: CNSA/CLEP
Meanwhile, on the far side of the Moon…
Chang'e-4 lunar day 27 is underway. Yutu-2 resumed activities at 20:26 UTC Feb. 5, with the lander following at 08:48 Feb. 6. Yutu-2 continues to add to 628.5 metres of roving since deployment onto Von Kármán crater in January 2019 is about 430 metres from the lander. The map below shows end of day 26.
Yutu-2 rover drive map for end of lunar day 26. Credit: CNSA/CLEP
Yutu-2 rover drive map for end of lunar day 26. Credit: CNSA/CLEP
Feb. 10 (~12:00 UTC, 7 am EST): Tianwen-1 Mars orbit insertion
Feb. 11 (18:00 UTC, 1 pm EST): Pragmatic Space Engagements with China for United States, its Allies, and other Partners (New Space New Mexico)
Feb. 13-14: Planetfest ‘21 (The Planetary Society)
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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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