Chinese firms taking giant leaps in race for space
Published: Dec 02, 2018 09:13 PM

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT


Chinese businesses are becoming more active in the commercial space sector, and this will be vital for building the nation's strength in an industry that is increasingly important for future competitiveness.

In one of the latest moves, Chinese Wi-Fi tech firm LinkSure Network has just unveiled plans to blanket the world with free internet access from space, joining global forerunners including Google, Facebook, SpaceX and OneWeb in the race to build space-based internet services.

LinkSure Network is known for its free Wi-Fi sharing app Wi-Fi Master Key, which has over 800 million monthly active users across the globe, according to the company's latest data. At an event in Beijing last week, the Shanghai-based firm announced that it would cover the world with free satellite internet by 2026.

The ambitious mission will be achieved by the launch of a two-tier low earth orbit satellite constellation, composed of 72 backbone satellites orbiting at an altitude of 1,000 kilometers above the earth's surface and 200 smaller satellites orbiting at an altitude of 600 kilometers.

The plan was initiated in 2016, according to An Yang, chief scientist for the company's satellite project. The first satellite is scheduled to be sent into space next year at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China's Gansu Province, and by 2020 the first 10 satellites will be put into orbit, An revealed.

LinkSure Network's plan is just one example of the recent burst of activity in the country's bourgeoning commercial space market.

In late October, e-commerce giant Alibaba Group took the wraps off its space strategy, announcing that it plans to put a mini space station and a communications satellite into orbit.

This will help to improve online-to-offline integration during the November 11 "Singles' Day" shopping carnival, said Alibaba, adding that it also hopes to work with scientific research institutions and for relevant space technologies and autonomous driving technologies to be translated into real-world applications.

Beijing-based space startup Commsat Technology Development has also revealed plans to send up seven satellites at the end of the year to help explore key Internet of Things technologies. Startups such as OneSpace and iSpace have also played a role in raising China's global profile in the arena of commercial space projects in recent years. All these domestic ventures were given a boost in 2014, when the State Council issued an announcement encouraging private capital to make inroads in civil space infrastructure construction.

Chinese commercial space initiatives are not yet near the likes of US-based SpaceX, which is planning crewed spaceship missions, but there have been signs that local businesses are becoming more competitive.

An from LinkSure Network said at the Tuesday event that each of the satellites will be equipped with a small robot to pinpoint faults in the event of extreme weather and will be able to make relevant forecasts. The robots will be capable of making repairs to the satellites and controlling their independent operations so as to ensure the satellites are kept in good shape. Various kinds of satellite fault information will also be sent to the ground to allow for the ground staff to gain more experience.

It seems it's only a matter of time before domestic businesses close the gap with their global counterparts in the commercialization of space.

But it must be remembered that there are risks associated with space missions, and accepting failure will be a key part of the country's commercial space journey.

Beijing-based startup LandSpace launched the country's maiden private attempt to loft a satellite carrying rocket into space in late October, but the attempt failed. But that is certainly not the end for the firm; SpaceX has also had several failed attempts.

Also, there is still a lot that must be improved if local commercial space efforts are to achieve a long-lasting success.

Along with brisker space activity in the years to come, the country will need to have the foresight to expand the capacity of existing rocket launch sites.

And for there to be sustained growth, as well as efforts to push for space-related technological advancements and innovations, there must also be a drive to put in place laws and regulations specifically designed to oversee commercial space projects.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.