2023 Yearender: China’s commercial space industry delivers unprecedented progress
Published: Dec 28, 2023 02:31 PM Updated: Dec 29, 2023 12:07 AM
The Smart Dragon-3, or Jielong-3, makes a successful maiden flight on December 9, 2022, from waters of the Yellow Sea, sending 14 satellites precisely into their designated orbit. Photo: VCG

The Smart Dragon-3, or Jielong-3, makes a successful maiden flight on December 9, 2022, from waters of the Yellow Sea, sending 14 satellites precisely into their designated orbit. Photo: VCG

China's commercial space industry has experienced a year of robust and all-around advancement in 2023, which has been lauded by industry insiders and observers as a prominent feature of China's overall development of its space program, with the  unprecedentedly rapid emergence of private space companies a particular highlight. 

As of December 15, China's space program had conducted 17 space launch activities related to commercial spaceflight this year, which included launches for commercial carrier rockets and various types of commercial satellites. 

As Chinese President Xi Jinping called for nurturing strategic emerging industries including biological manufacturing, commercial space industry and the low-altitude economy at the annual Central Economic Work Conference on December 12, the booming progress of the private space companies is injecting confidence into the country's commercial space endeavors as it heads into its ninth year since 2015. 

Year of breakthroughs

CERES-1, built by Beijing-based start-up Galactic Energy, has dramatically increased its launch frequency from four launches in three years to at least seven launches in a single year, including one ocean-based launch, successfully sending around 20 satellites into space in 2023. This small solid-fuel commercial carrier rocket, first successfully launched in November 2020, has rapidly become a force in China's commercial rocket sector following years of intensive development.

In July, another milestone was achieved by Beijing-based private space company, Landspace, with the successful launch of the Zhuque-2 rocket. The flight marked the world's first successful payload delivery into a preset orbit by a liquid oxygen-methane rocket, signifying a major breakthrough in China's use of new, low-cost liquid propellants. 

In December, Zhuque-2 continued its success, smoothly completing a mission to launch three satellites in one launch. During a post-launch press conference, the company announced that its new reusable rocket model, Zhuque-3, is scheduled to undertake its maiden flight in 2025.

What's more, several other private space companies have successfully launched rockets this year, including the Tianlong-2 of Beijing-based Space Pioneer, SQX-1 of Bejing start-up iSpace, and Lijian-1 built by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). 

Galaxy Space, a commercial aerospace company based in Beijing, has developed and successfully launched a new type of satellite, designed for stacking multiple satellites in a flat-panel configuration. On July 23, 2023, the company launched a satellite codenamed "Lingxi-03" into preset orbit. 

This satellite is China's first to utilize flexible solar wings. These "flexible wings" have several advantages: they are compact, lightweight, and modular, making them easier to store. With the same mass, they have a larger surface area to absorb more solar energy. This feature is particularly beneficial for simultaneously launching a large number of satellites, playing a crucial role in accelerating the construction of satellite internet infrastructure, the company told the Global Times exclusively in December. 

Currently performing well in orbit, the Lingxi-03 satellite is validating a range of technologies essential for next-generation LEO broadband satellite communication. These include high-capacity energy generation, active thermal control, integrated industrial manufacturing structures, and multi-satellite stack compression release mechanisms. 

Its successful deployment is providing crucial technological support for the rapid establishment of China's massive low Earth orbit communication constellation, marking a significant stride forward in the country's efforts to expand its space-based communication capabilities. This development not only demonstrates China's growing expertise in satellite technology but also represents a leap forward in its quest to establish a robust and efficient satellite internet system, the company said. 

Moreover, China's national space team has expanded its presence in the commercial rocket field too, with the country's major space contractors China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) leading multiple commercial satellite launches with their main models, the Long March 2D and the Kuaizhou-1A, respectively. 

With multiple participants engaged in friendly competition, China's commercial rocket sector is demonstrating increasing vitality and robust growth.

Promising potential

Kang Guohua, Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, summarized China's commercial space development in 2023 under three themes: wide application, full-chain development, and low Earth orbit (LEO).

Kang told the Global Times that he has been impressed this year by the resilience of the commercial space industry. 

"There is also a major breakthrough in applications, such as Huawei's launch of direct-to-satellite smartphones, which has truly brought the commercial space industry into the public eye. Previously, there was a misconception that there is little demand for commercial spaceflight, and this case has allowed people to see the huge potential of satellite internet," Kang noted. 

The other highlight for this year's commercial space development is the advancement of a comprehensive industrial chain, from upstream industries including satellite manufacturing and rocket production, to downstream industries including various applications and services. 

Kang specifically mentioned the construction of rocket launch sites by local governments. Previously, these resources were solely controlled by the military, but now they are being opened up for civilian use, reflecting the emergence of a holistic space ecosystem. 

For example, Space Pioneer told the Global Times in an exclusive interview in July that the firm has built its own launch site at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, and its own rocket manufacturing and assembly center in Zhangjiagang, East China's Jiangsu Province, in a move to greatly boost the efficiency of assembly, testing and launch. 

China's first commercial spacecraft launch site in Wenchang, South China's Hainan Province, is ramping up the final stages of construction, and plans to commence normalized commercial launch operations in 2024, the Global Times reported in July. 

Shanghai is also aiming to foster a complete industrial chain for commercial rocket production, with an annual production capacity of 50 commercial rockets and 600 commercial satellites by 2025, according to an official plan released in October. 

LEO ambitions 

What's more, China's commercial space exploration has made significant progress in low Earth orbit, or LEO, activities. 

This trend is described by experts as "a step forward for the civilian field," indicating that as civilian space exploration advances in the low Earth orbit space, the focus of state efforts may gradually shift to higher orbits. 

This aligns with the global trend of technology development, where countries invest substantial funds in exploring a specific field and subsequently transfer the technology to the civilian sector, Kang said. 

In 2023, one of the most notable commercial satellite companies in China is Changguang Satellite Technology Co based in Northeast China's Jilin Province. In June, the company successfully launched 41 satellites in a single mission. 

This feat advanced the development of the Jilin-1 satellite constellation, significantly enhancing its capabilities. The constellation now offers high quality remote sensing information and products for various sectors, including national security, geographic surveying, land planning, agriculture, forestry, environmental protection, and smart cities. 

Furthermore, in July, the Jilin-based firm, in partnership with the Aerospace Information Research Institute of the CAS, conducted a successful experiment in high-speed laser communication between satellites and ground stations. This experiment laid the foundation for expanding China's space-to-ground communication systems from microwave to laser technologies.

In the realm of constructing LEO communication satellite constellations, a field that has seen a significant rise in activity this year, both national and commercial entities have made substantial progress. 

Outstanding major projects include the state-led Hongyun, Hongyan programs, and Xingwang, as well as commercial ventures including the Tianqi constellation. 

On September 5, a new grouping of satellites for the Tianqi constellation were successfully launched into orbit. As per the plan, this constellation aims to establish a low-Earth orbit satellite Internet of Things (IoT) network, comprising 38 satellites and several ground stations, to create an integrated space-terrestrial IoT ecosystem.

For Deng Zhongliang, an academician from the International Eurasian Academy of Sciences and Professor at the School of Electronic Engineering of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, the great leap of commercialization in space this year would be the satellite internet. 

Satellite internet refers to a satellite communication system that can provide broadband access services. The unique advantage of it is that satellite internet is able to fill the coverage gaps in mountainous areas, plateaus, deserts, airspace, and oceans where ground-based mobile internet is insufficient.

Due to the huge potential of commercial applications of satellite internet, it has become one of the most important directions for international competition in the field. 

China, in this regard, is working on integrating the 5G ground-based internet with the satellite internet powered by China's BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, and this innovation has made China leading global research and development works, thus promoting the rapid growth of a variety of new commercial aerospace applications, Deng said. 

What's more, in order to further reduce costs, a number of new technologies need to enhanced, including the feasibility of rocket recovery, breakthroughs in key components, and the capability of launching multiple satellites with a single rocket. This year, a series of experiments have been conducted, with significant progress made in China's commercial space sector, which Deng believed marked "a big step forward."

The robust development in satellite technology and deployment underscores China's growing prowess in the global space industry, space experts and industry insiders hailed. 

The advancements in satellite constellations, particularly in remote sensing and communication, highlight the country's commitment to enhancing its capabilities in space-based technologies. These efforts not only bolster China's technological infrastructure but also offer valuable services and data to a wide array of industries, marking a significant step forward in the nation's journey to becoming a leading space power, they noted.