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7 China Space Startups for Rockets, Satellites

We recently deconstructed an upcoming IPO from NIO, a China-based manufacturer of electric vehicles that hopes to take on Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) some day. We noted then that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is gunning for the United States in every technological arena possible, from artificial intelligence to fintech. And while China may be kicking our asses in some ways, the United States still holds an out-of-this-world advantage when it comes to outer-space technology. In particular, our NewSpace startup scene, led by another Elon Musk company, SpaceX, is rapidly maturing and commercializing. Companies are developing rockets that may someday take us to Mars or give tourists a thrill in zero gravity. In 2014, the Chinese government finally opened the door for private companies to launch their own ventures, giving liftoff to a commercialized China space program that will finally answer the question: Can you see the Great Wall from space?

china-space: The Great Wall of China, as seen from the International Space Station

The Great Wall of China, as seen from the International Space Station using a high-powered lens, which is the only way you can see it from space. Credit: NASA

This isn’t to suggest that China doesn’t already have a robust space program, but all of its projects have been run by state-owned enterprises that analysts at SpaceNews describe as an alphabet soup of related companies with these confusing acronyms: CASC, CAST, CALT and CASIC. The biggest project looming this year is a mission to land on the far side of the moon in December. Cue the Pink Floyd music: China will attempt to be the first space-faring nation to make a soft landing on the side of the lunar surface that faces away from Earth. The rugged robotic lander will likely explore the immense impact crater known as the South Pole-Aitken Basin. There are also reports that China is in the early stages of building its own space tourism industry and sees reusable rockets like those designed by SpaceX and Blue Origin as the future.

china-space: lander on the moon

An illustration of the Chinese lander on the dark side of the moon.

But for this article, we’ll take a look at some of the China space startups that have emerged over the last few years. At least 10 private launch firms alone have been founded since the Chinese government’s about-face in 2014, according to China Global Television Network. We’ve tracked down seven China space startups after extensive research that included poring over badly translated Chinese websites that make excessive use of oversexed anime characters.

ExPace Backed by State-Owned Enterprise

Founded in 2016, ExPace is the most well-funded of the new generation of private China space companies, raising a mega-round Series A of $180 million in December 2017. However, most consider it “nominally” private because it’s actually a subsidiary of one of the state-owned space and missile defense enterprises, China Aerospace Science and Industry Co. (CASIC). That certainly seems to give ExPace an early advantage, especially considering it launched its first mission back in January 2017 by carrying three small satellites. The next mission for its 60-foot-tall Kuaizhou-1A is reportedly scheduled for September, when it will take a mysterious satellite called Centispace-1-S1 into space. We’re sure it has nothing to do with China’s innocuous surveillance programs that have given rise to a Big Brother-like social credit score program. Below, the KZ-1A lifts off:

china-space: rocket launch

SpaceNews reported that ExPace has plans to develop much larger rockets, including the Kuaizhou-11 and KZ-21 launch vehicles. The latter will reportedly be capable of sending more than 20 tons into a low Earth orbit versus about 450 pounds for the KZ-1A. That’s a lot of fortune cookies. (Editor’s note – ExPace doesn’t appear to have a functioning website at the time, only a message stating “Thank you for choosing our service, your website has been closed by the administrator, please contact our customer service personnel for details.”)

One Space Rockets Powered by Solid Fuel

china-space: One Space company logo. Click to go to company websiteFounded in 2015, Beijing-based One Space is considered one of the leading China space startups today. It’s unclear just how much money the company has raised, with estimates ranging from about $74.5 million from two rounds (Crunchbase) to $116 million (SpaceNews, Global Times) over four rounds, with one less-reliable source (SpaceTech Asia) saying investments total $350 million. It definitely raised a $44 million Series B this month, according to numerous reports. Regardless, the company is a major player on the scene, with CEO Shu Chang embracing all SpaceX comparisons. In May, One Space successfully launched its first suborbital rocket, Chongqing Liangjiang Star (also known as the OS-X). It now has its sights set on launching a larger rocket, the OS-M1, by the end of the year that is capable of carrying several hundred pounds into low-Earth orbit. The end goal is to serve as a launch vehicle for small satellites.

china-space: Assembly of the OS-X rocket.

Assembly of the OS-X rocket. Credit: One Space

The company is betting on solid-fuel rockets, which is the oldest rocket technology on the planet—first used by the Chinese back in the 13th century for combating the Mongol hordes. A solid fuel rocket has its fuel and oxidant mixed together as fine powders, which are then pressed into a solid “cake.” These days they’re more regularly used for missiles because the propellant can remain in storage longer and is more reliable on short-notice launches. You know, in case you want to take a quick spin around the planet.

Big Names Invest In China Space Startup i-Space

china-space: Ispace company website. Click to go to company websiteArchrival to Space One, Space Honor, more commonly referred to as i-Space, is also based in Beijing. The company has raised about $90 million from a Series A in July that included some well-known Chinese tech companies like Baidu (think Google) and Didi Chuxing (think Uber), among other investors. In April, i-Space successfully sent up its own solid-state fueled rocket just past the Karman line, the boundary at about 62 miles in altitude where Earth’s atmosphere and outer space kiss. The test was the first step to launch a bigger rocket, Hyperbola-1, by next summer, according to SpaceNews.

The Hyperbola-1 rocket will be powerful enough to launch payloads of more than 600 pounds into space. The next generation Hyperbola-3 rocket, not scheduled to launch until early the next decade, will reputedly be able to lift more than 4,500 pounds into low-Earth orbit.

Landspace Bets on Methane Engines for Rocket Power

china-space: Landspace company logo. Click to go to company websiteAnother Chinese space startup based in Beijing is Landspace, which pulled $31.7 million into its orbit from a Series B in April of this year. The company is developing a rocket that will use methane in its liquid fuel propellant mix. Landspace says the Zhuque-2 (ZQ-2) rocket will not only be more fuel efficient but also reusable. China has pledged to make all of its rockets reusable by 2035, according to Popular Mechanics. However, don’t expect to see ZQ-2 reach outer space before 2020. In the meantime, Landspace is readying a solid-state rocket for launch next month, SpaceNews reported. It will carry a satellite to be used by China Central Television.

china-space: Landspace rocket engine

Landspace rocket engine

Last year, Landspace formed a partnership with Danish company GOMSpace (FRA:1G2), a nanosatellite manufacturer, according to China Money Network. The deal to ferry GomSpace’s satellites into orbit made Landspace the first Chinese private space company to win a contract from a foreign firm, CMN reported.

Link Space is First China Space Startup

china-space: Ink Space company logo. Click to go to company websiteBeijing-based Link Space was founded in 2014, the same year that the PRC government greenlighted commercial space ventures. No word on the company’s exact funding, but a story four years ago said its 21-year-old founder (and another Elon Musk wannabe) was selling a 16 percent stake in the company for 16 million yuan (about $2.3 million today). Like SpaceX, Link Space is staking its future on developing affordable reusable rocket technology. Its New Line 1 will be used to launch small satellites (less than 450 pounds) into orbit at about half the price of new rockets, according to Astro Watch.

china-space: Link space rockets

Credit: Link Space

The company isn’t just blowing smoke: In July 2016, the company achieved rocket hover flight with a single vector-thrust-engine for the first time in China, Astro Watch reported. Link Watch is also developing its own satellites through subsidiaries.

Spacety is One of China’s Private Satellite Companies

china-space: Spacety company logo. Click to go to company websiteFounded in 2016, Spacety is a commercial satellite manufacturer that raised $22 million in a Series B last month. The company has launched four small satellites so far and undertaken more than a dozen space-based scientific experiments in the last two years, including a project with Israeli-Swiss startup SpacePharma on microgravity. It also counts GOMSpace as a partner. By 2020, Spacety says it will launch 100 microsatellites each year, including instruments like this one:

china-space: A microsatellite

Credit: Spacety

One of its ongoing projects apparently involves launching a satellite constellation of 288 laser-based communication microsatellites to allow airline passengers to experience the same WiFi connection speeds and costs in the air as they do on the ground—yet another sign of how we’ll soon have global internet.

Commsat to Serve IIoT with Satellite Constellation

china-space: Commsat Technology Development. Click to go to company websiteAnother Beijing-based satellite manufacturer with big plans, Commsat Technology Development has raised at least $16 million in disclosed funding from a February Series A, though China Daily has reported that the China space startup has gone through three investing rounds. In the next few years, the company says it plans to put 60 satellites into orbit to collect “real-time data for industries” including the heavy machinery and logistics sector, which sounds like it will position itself to serve the Industrial Internet of Things in space. Eventually, Commsat hopes to grow the network to 800 satellites.

In addition, the company plans to establish some satellite ground stations in countries and regions involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a thinly veiled initiative to economically dominate all of Asia through infrastructure projects. The satellites will reportedly be used for telecommunication needs for things like offshore operations and forest fire prevention in places with limited or no access to the internet.

Conclusions

The China space startup scene is only emerging. If past performance from the Chinese is any indication of future success, we would expect to see the budding industry evolve quite quickly. So far, the investments seem pretty small considering the capital-intensive nature of commercial space operations. China’s tech giants like Tencent and Alibaba are so far MIA, but we would think they’ll be eager to hitch a ride when they figure out the advantages of having their own homegrown telecommunications and data networks in outer space. Finally, we need to keep in mind that China not only does some things just as good or better than the West, but often cheaper. Our prediction: Expect to see a shift in satellite launches to China within the decade.

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