Tuesday 14 December saw Expace fail in its 14th launch attempt
of its Kuaizhou-1A small, solid-fueled rocket. This was the second failure in 14 tries, and the third failure overall for Expace following its unsuccessful Kuaizhou-11 launch last year. The payloads–GeeSAT-1A and GeeSAT-1B, were the first two satellites in the GeeSpace enhanced navigation constellation, a project being developed by auto manufacturer Geely.
After the failure, the Kuaizhou-1A now has a reliability of ~86% (12/14), which is not very different from comparable rockets (Electron from Rocket Lab is 20/23, i.e. 87%), but is still a major setback for China’s most well-funded, and arguably least-commercial commercial launch company (remember that Expace is effectively a wholly-owned “commercial” subsidiary of CASIC, via CASIC’s own subsidiary Sanjiang Group).
If the first failure of KZ-1A, back in September 2020 is any indication, we may not hear from Expace for awhile: following their 2020 failure, the company went ~1 year without another launch.
The lost payloads were two GeeSpace satellites that had been waiting to be launched for ~1 year. The automaker Geely has put a lot of eggs into its space program basket, investing up to RMB 2.27B (US$356M at current exchange rates) into a satellite manufacturing facility in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province. The company had expected to test these two satellites for various technologies in advance of a broader rollout of their constellation. These plans will now be set back a little ways.
Ultimately, the launch failure is likely to have a bigger impact on Expace than on GeeSpace, particularly as commercial launch companies begin to ramp up capacity. While Expace jumped out to a huge lead among China’s new generation of launch companies, with 9 successes in its first 9 KZ-1A attempts, the company is now staring down the barrel of a rapidly developing Galactic Energy, Landspace, Deep Blue Aerospace, and others.
Expace clearly still holds a lead among commercial launch companies in successful launches, but it is beginning to look like the “more commercial” players are better-incentivized to move faster and play somewhat safer. Only time will tell!