DFHour #29: US-China space race, China's growing ambitions in sea launch and much more



Subscribe to our newsletter

By subscribing, you agree with Revue’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy and understand that The Dongfang Hour Newsletter will receive your email address.

The Dongfang Hour
The Dongfang Hour
Your Weekly China Space Industry Summary, by Blaine Curcio and Jean Deville, and with editing by Orbital Gateway Consulting Analyst Aurélie Gillet.

What's up in Chinese Space this Week?
Welcome to the Dongfang Hour China Space Newsletter for 15-21 Nov 2021. This week, before giving a summary of the most relevant pieces of news per sectors, we specifically discuss whether or not there is a space race between the United States and China. As always, you can check our weekly episode for more detailed analysis on selected topics!
Highlight of the Week: a US-China space race?
Many (western and non-western) analysts are rather dismissive of the existence of a space race between the United States and China. Some indeed argue that China sets up its own agenda, independently of what the US does; that the space race is a concept put forward to drive US investment in space technology; or that the multiplicity of space actors make the very concept of a space race simply not relevant. However, several elements tend to point at the existence of such a race. 
A race can be defined as a state of competition, in which the first to reach a certain objective wins. The key elements of a race are hence: 1) the players; 2) the objective to be reached; 3) the ‘prize’ or ‘thing to be won’; and 4) a sense of urgency, a belief that one is indeed engaged in a competition. 
It is commonly argued that the US and China, as currently the two most powerful countries in the world, are engaged in a ‘great power competition’, and that this competition extends to the space realm. The question now is whether there is a tangible objective to be reached, whether there is a sense of urgency to reach it ‘before the competitor’, and whether there is something to be gained from it. This week’s interview with Ye Peijian seems to indicate that it is the case, by highlighting the increasing importance of geopolitical factors as key motivations of the development of space technology in China. Significantly, he stated that “What others do, we will also do; what others haven’t done yet, we will do it; what others did well, we will do better”. 
Moreover, there seems to be a general and genuine concern among Chinese actors that China may be deprived of space resources in the future by the US. Such concerns extend to the commercial sector, as demonstrated both by their mentioning during China’s deep space exploration forum that took place in Shenzhen in October, as well as in a recent interview of the co-CEO of oSpace, Yao Song, who mentioned that “Space resources are first-come, first-served, first-occupied, first-served. If we don’t go now, the sky will be locked up in the future”. 
In any case, China continues its development of key technologies (such as sea-launch vehicles in the Haiyang Space Port), avoids alienating Russia by not reacting to the recent ASAT test, and is expanding its sphere of influence in the digital sector, as the first China-Africa BeiDou System Cooperation Forum, held in Beijing on Friday 5 November, shows. It is also engaging in talks about cooperation in the space sector with Italy, which is one of the first signatories of the Artemis Accords.
The state of competition between the US and China in the space sector (the space race?) is likely to be hotly debated by analysts and academics for years to come. You can read our Twitter thread on the topic here!
Interview of Ye Peijian by CCTV
Interview of Ye Peijian by CCTV
The Week in Launch
Interesting developments in the launch sector this week, especially when it comes to China’s sea launch capabilities, with the Haiyang Oriental Spaceport going big on sea launch. The latter might indeed be used to launch CAS Space’s ZK-1A, and possibly Landspace’s ZQ-2.
CAS Space, a commercial launch spin-off of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been developing the ZK-1A solid-fueled rocket for ~2 years now, and has been in the past few weeks testing its erector vehicle - basically transferring the rocket from its transport vehicle to the erector, and the using the latter to put the 200t rocket from a horizontal to a vertical position, and back (video dating back to october 18). Although the ZK-1A could be land-launched, it will most probably be sea-launched: the Oriental Space Port of coastal city of Haiyang in Shandong Province held a ceremony a couple weeks ago on Oct. 30 for the construction of a new type of ship for sea launch, which would be 162.5 meters long and 40 meters wide. The ship would support small to medium lift solid and liquid-fueled sea launch, as well as launch vehicle recovery. The images showed a rocket that looked very much like a ZK-1A. The ship was reported to be available in 2022, which coincides well with the first launch of the ZK-1A, apparently in March 2022 with no less than 6 satellites as the payload, according to a recent WeChat post. 
A recent photo published by CAS Space last week on the erector vehicle test gave rise to some speculation that Landspace’s Zhuque-2 rocket may also be launched from the Haiyang Space port. As noted by the always insightful Cosmic Penguin on Twitter, the blurred out part of the photo of the TEL test looks suspiciously like a ZQ-2 liquid methalox rocket from Landspace. Soon after, we saw some equally impressive sleuthing from the Ace of Razgriz, who pointed out that the two rockets could be seen on Google Maps, where one of them is clearly a Landspace rocket. This rings up some questions, chiefly will Haiyang end up developing the necessary infrastructure to allow for methalox launches? For the latter, the launch facility would need to build supporting infrastructure, including capacity for dozens of cryogenic fuel trucks to ship fuel to the launch site, or alternatively infrastructure to produce cryogenic fuel on site. There would also need to be additional fueling systems for cryogenic rockets, adding more complexity. 
On another note, Saturday 20 November saw a LM-4B launch the Gaofen-11-03 EO satellite from Taiyuan. This was the 3rd time that the SAST-built rocket launched a Gaofen-11 series EO satellite, following launches in 2018 and 2020. The satellite is slated to be used for city planning, crop monitoring, etc. 
Lastly, Jiutian Xingge (九天行歌), a commercial company engaged in R&D and manufacturing core components for liquid-fuelled launch vehicles, recently announced the completion of the first weldless propellant tank bottom. Compared to traditional tanks, weldless propellant tanks can greatly improve the pressure-bearing capacity of the tank, reduce the failure risk and manufacturing cost of the bottom of the tank.
Photo by CAS Space which gave rise to abovementioned speculations
Photo by CAS Space which gave rise to abovementioned speculations
The presumed Landspace Zhuque-2 in Haiyang (Google Maps)
The presumed Landspace Zhuque-2 in Haiyang (Google Maps)
The Week in China’s Space Program
China’s top-level space program veteran Ye Peijian gave a 30-min interview to CCTV last week, in which he brings up the motivations behind China’s space program, the US-China competition and its potential impact in the space sector, as well as China’s future deep space exploration ambitions. The 76-year old top level space engineer, who became one of the most respected space people in China thanks to a phenomenal career, mentioned that while the objective of China’s space exploration program is most definitely space sciences, geopolitical reasons are increasingly playing an important role - especially given that the US has “repeatedly taken an arrogant stance” vis-à-vis China on space achievements. As discussed above, his remarks, as well as remarks made by Chinese commercial actors, seem to point towards the existence of a space race between the US and China. However, reducing China’s space program to geopolitics and prestige operations may not be representative of the motivational factors driving aerospace engineers: the space industry in China indeed tends to be filled with people passionate about what they are doing
Lastly, Ye Peijian also discussed in some detail the timeline of China’s space exploration missions. Notably, he mentioned that China “could put a taikonaut on the Moon before 2030, based on the current speed of development of China’s space technologies.” While this is not an official date, it shows that China is thinking about speeding things up compared to the ILRS initial planning, and shows some coherence with the development of the Long March 5DY rocket (based on mature technologies). He also mentions that China plans to complete a Mars sample mission by 2030, a date that was already mentioned during the Shenzhen Deep Space Exploration Forum in October (see our deep dive on this event here). Combined with China’s asteroid sample return mission, this suggests that the 2020s will be a very big milestone for China in space exploration.
Ye Peijian
Ye Peijian
The Week in Satellite Applications
Commercial satellite operator ADA Space announced on Saturday an RMB355M (~US$55M) B-round of funding, with funding coming from multiple Guangdong-based funds, namely Shenzhen Oriental Fortune Capital and Dongguan Financial Holdings. ADA Space is noteworthy for having launched a number of “Xingshidai” satellites, as part of their ADACloud project. The funding round announcement did not specify how the money would be allocated, but this represents one of the largest funding rounds for a Chinese commercial satellite manufacturer. A big congrats to ADA Space!
On November 19, CASC announced the signature of a strategic cooperation framework agreement with the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. The agreement involved CASC subsidiary Siwei Technology, a company tasked with utilizing the Gaojing EO satellite data for agricultural/ecological purposes. The Gaojing constellation has seen limited use thus far, with the number of satellites stuck at 4, despite initial plans for 16 + 4 + 4 + X satellites. This agreement may start to change that, calling for collaboration on new satellite projects, among other things. Finally, the press release mentions that the agreement is in line with Xi Jinping Thought on a Civilized Ecology (习近平生态文明思想). 
The last piece of news related to satellite applications involves one of China’s three major state-owned telcos, China Telecom, which has historically been the telco with the biggest focus on satellite (admittedly still a tiny focus). This week, the company announced a Tiantong satellite IoT business, in continuity of its 3 emerging industries strategies (Tiantong, IFC, and maritime broadband). The announcement also noted plans to address Belt and Road countries.
CASC and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment sign strategic agreement
CASC and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment sign strategic agreement
The Week in Satellite Manufacturing + operation
CASC subsidiary Hangyu Satellite signed an agreement with Suzhou city for the development of the Yangtze River Delta Commercial Space Industry Innovation Center. This is but the latest space company to emphasize a presence in Suzhou, with others notably including commercial launch company Space Pioneer (aka Tianbing Aerospace), which began construction of an “intelligent manufacturing facility” in the city in April. 
On another note, the provincial Leadership of Shanxi Province Visited Xingyun last week. Minor update, but we rarely hear from Xingyun or Shanxi these days. To review, Xingyun is the narrowband constellation project of CASIC, being developed at the company’s Wuhan National Aerospace Industrial Base. Shanxi Province (not to be confused with Shaanxi Province) has a very limited space sector. The visit had limited takeaways, but Xingyun and Shanxi are two things to keep an eye on moving forward.
The Week in Policy & Events
In terms of policy-related news, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) published its “14th Five-Year Plan for the Information and Communication Industries” (《“十四五”信息通信行业发展规划》) on Tuesday 16 November. The plan includes five “key tasks”( 重点任务), one of which is “satellite communications networks. In the days following, we saw a handful of Chinese commercial space companies publish articles about the announcement, echoing support. 
Earlier this month, we saw the First China-Africa BeiDou System Cooperation Forum, held in Beijing on 5 November. The forum saw representatives from 48 African countries, including no less than 8 Government Ministers and 8 ambassadors to China. The event called for increasing cooperation between China and Africa in developing Beidou applications, at a time when China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and notably the Digital Silk Road (the digital component of BRI) are starting to face increasing pressure. Indeed, questions about debt sustainability as well as the deteriorating political situation in certain key countries along the BRI (such as Ethiopia, which has been a major beneficiary of Chinese investment), calls into question the sustainability of certain BRI projects.  
In the space sector specifically, China appears to be moving away from “selling huge pieces of expensive hardware” (like telecommunications satellites costing hundreds of millions of US$) towards selling “applications”, oftentimes using Chinese-launched hardware. The most obvious example of this would be Beidou, where China has launched a global satnav constellation, and is now encouraging countries to use Beidou-compatible chips and other hardware to develop location-based service applications. While China’s Beidou ties in Africa are still less strong than, for example, Southeast Asia, we expect to see more Chinese involvement on the continent in the future. The US-China competition may be extending to the digital realm, as both are trying to forge digital alliances in third countries - as a proactive measure for one’s own national interests, and in some cases, as a blocking measure to the other party’s national interests. 
For a deeper-dive into the Digital Silk Road, we recommend a great podcast conversation on the China-Africa Podcast with Jonathan Hillman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC.
Speech by Mahama Ouedraogo at the China-Africa BeiDou System Cooperation Forum
Speech by Mahama Ouedraogo at the China-Africa BeiDou System Cooperation Forum
Other News of the Week
Deep Blue Aerospace recently announced Q4 Hiring. Notably, the company announced 60 open positions, an impressive number given that as of the end of 2020, they apparently only had 67 employees. Interestingly, despite the fact that DBA moved their HQ to Nantong, Jiangsu earlier this year, zero of the open positions are located in Nantong, with the vast majority being in Beijing, and a handful in Xi’an.
This week, iSpace published an interview with Zhao Shilun, a software engineer that joined iSpace out of university. The “born after 1990” (90后, it sounds far more natural in Chinese) young man discusses why he joined iSpace rather than a tech firm, what he likes about the company and industry, and more.
Lastly, nine leading space industry engineers/scientists were named academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Engineers (CAE) in 2021. Yu Dengyun and Fan Ruixiang, from CASC, as well as Li Zhi and Jiang Yong from CASIC, were elected academicians of CAS. Among those elected academicians of CAE: Wang Guoqing, Li Detian, and Yang Hong were from CASC, Zhu Kun was from CASIC, and Yang Changfeng from China Satellite Navigation System Management Office.
This has been another episode of the Dongfang Hour China Space News(letter). If you’ve made it this far, we thank you for your attention, and look forward to seeing you next time! Until then, don’t forget to follow us on our websiteYouTubeTwitterInstagramLinkedIn, or your local podcast source.
Did you enjoy this issue? Yes No
The Dongfang Hour
The Dongfang Hour @DongFangHour

Your Weekly China Space Industry Summary, with a touch of eccentricity and some attempts at humor.

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.