China's booming private aerospace industry

By Barry He
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, September 4, 2019
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Linkspace's RLV-T5 rocket blasts off at its launch base in Lenghu town, Mangya city, northwest China's Qinghai province, August 10, 2019. [Photo/VCG]

Space is a vast and mind-boggling concept. The sheer distances at play command respect from anyone with a basic secondary school education of our planetary system. Space is big, to say the least. But what is less well known is this: Space is expensive. Want to deliver something into space? Forget about the cost of shipping through your local post office. It is estimated that sending just half a kilogram of mass into orbit will cost approximately $3,000. The economics of space as an accessible field for business are just as much an obstacle to overcome as the technology required to make such feats possible. 

Up to now, American companies such as SpaceX – run by tech tycoon Elon Musk – have led the charge in revolutionizing the possibilities and monetization of space travel. Innovative satellite networking systems and reusable landing rockets are products of out-of-the-box thinking and are poised to accelerate humanity's progress to the stars. Reusable rockets that can take off and land again at least partially intact are widely considered the key to making space travel viable and accessible. The French aerospace company Arianespace estimates that a reusable rocket would have to make around 30 launches a year to be truly cost effective, a benchmark that will be easily achieved if lowered costs drive demand from space industries and services which are now in their infancy. 

Not only American companies are paving the way, however. China's space industry is starting to flex its muscles and is enjoying an influx of talented young people entering its ranks. China currently boasts about 100 privatized aerospace companies – a huge leap from only 30 in 2014, when the government first gave the green light for start-ups to operate in the space industry. Companies such as the Beijing-based LinkSpace are also pioneering reusable rocket technology, bringing the heavens one step closer. 

In early August, a LinkSpace test flight successfully launched a rocket 300 meters into the air, where it hovered for a full minute before returning to the ground safely and completely intact. LinkSpace CEO Hu Zhenyu attributes the success of private Chinese space companies in part to the large pool of fresh talent seeping into the industry. "Chinese investment institutions are also optimistic about the development of private space companies," he noted. The visible success of American companies such as SpaceX continues to fuel this sense of optimistic ambition. 

"The private sector's getting into the more cost effective [projects], like micro and nano satellites," Lincoln Hines, a researcher at Cornell University in the U.S., told Wired magazine. "The government tends to focus more on these larger, more expensive and perhaps less efficient types," he said. Companies such as LinkSpace are keeping this strategy pointed at the domestic market. 

"The first step in LinkSpace is to use a recyclable rocket to serve the sub-orbital launch service," says Hu. "Most of this service is used for scientific research rather than satellite launch, so market demand will mainly come from China."

The Chinese government this year has nurtured this growing industry, having provided in July a sense of direction to such companies. Construction standards required for reusable rockets that can reach an altitude of 200 kilometers were laid out, outlining specifications for safety testing, manufacturing and research. The continuation of this synergistic relationship will be important as state and industry find ways to further complement and support each other's roles. 

China's domestic space industry is at a new dawn, when technological breakthroughs, predominantly through reusable rockets, finally stand to make a significant impact on the prospects of space exploration. Over 50 years after humankind landed on the moon, it's about time that private companies in both America and China pushed the research so that this unparalleled industry will have something to show the 21st century. 

Barry He is a global technology and business commentator based in London, initially specializing in start-ups and technology PR.

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