by Blaine Curcio and Jean Deville
As part of the partnership between SpaceWatch.Global and Orbital Gateway Consulting we have been granted permission to publish selected articles and texts. We are pleased to present “Dongfang Hour China Aerospace News Roundup 3 May – 9 May 2021”.
Hello and welcome to another episode of the Dongfang Hour China Aero/Space News Roundup! A special shout-out to our friends at GoTaikonauts!, and at SpaceWatch.Global, both excellent sources of space industry news. In particular, we suggest checking out GoTaikonauts! long-form China reporting, as well as the Space Cafe series from SpaceWatch.Global. Without further ado, the news update from the week of 3 May – 9 May 2021.
1) China’s Long March 5B first stage re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and (seemingly) lands in the Indian Ocean
10 days or so ago, China launched a Long March 5B rocket to put into orbit the core module of the Chinese Space Station (see DFH April 26 – May 2). As mentioned last week, this rocket is a beast: it weighs over 800t at lift-off, can put up to 25t of payload into LEO, and is comparable to some of the largest operational rockets at the moment. It is composed of 4 kerolox strap-on boosters, and a giant core stage burning liquid oxygen and hydrogen. On top of this core stage sits the payload bay.
Now as there was no upper stage, the core stage delivered the Tianhe module directly to orbit and is now in an orbit that is rapidly decaying and that will lead to the reentry of this massive 23t piece of spaceware. XXXXX.
While atmospheric reentry is a common thing in the space industry, it is more rare to see it happen to such a big piece of space hardware, and generally, it is a good practice to control the reentry in order to increase its chances of it occurring over the ocean. This rule historically has not always been applied (and there is no actual regulation), and this is currently the case for the LM5B core stage. The chances of the LM5B actually falling on someone’s home is quite slim (water covers a majority of the Earth’s surface; most of the debris burns up in the atmosphere), but it is non-zero. And last time a LM5B reentry happened, entire pieces of debris were recovered in parts of Africa.
While I am not too worried about the results (I trust the statistics/probability figures!), and while space debris management definitely needs more regulation, what I actually found more interesting was the reaction to this event in Western countries, and the non-reaction in China. Multiple media reports in the West have reported on the event with a doomsday like of feel, with the lack of nuance likely due to the deteriorating Sino-Western relations. On the other hand, none of the mainstream space media in China are discussing the topic, making this event look like a non-event (although there has been some discussion on Weibo).
Worth noting as well, this phenomenon is also happening the other way around. As an avid follower of Chinese space media, discussions on US space have increasingly a bias, such as this post on the postponing of Ingenuity’s 4th flight. China and the US have a long way to go before this sort of bias is undone.
A fascinating cultural event that we’ve witnessed over the past week or so. At the intersection of the space industry, US-China relations, the Twittersphere, and probably a dosage of Elon Musk, the orbital Odyssey of the LM-5B has captivated audiences around the world, with alternating viewpoints of “doomsday”, “the whole thing is being overblown”, to a fair few space industry watchers tweeting sentiments of “chill the f*ck out everyone, it’s just a rocket”.
At the time of recording (9 May afternoon HKT), it seems like the doomsday scenarios were, at least this time, overblown, with the rocket debris seemingly having landed in the Indian Ocean. Overall, while probably not good for the PR of China’s space program in the short-term, I believe this event is probably a good thing for the space industry in general, for several reasons:
- It got a lot more people to be interested in space, I think. Various space industry personalities have been interviewed by media around the world about this issue, including many mainstream media sources. Case in point–when listening to Babbage, the weekly science/tech podcast from The Economist, I was surprised to find that the first person they interviewed in the episode this week was none other than Andrew Jones, a journalist focused on the Chinese space sector.
- The level of media coverage and subsequent bad PR from this event may also lead China to upgrade the technology on the LM-5B to allow for controlled re-entries. As someone who knows very little about rocket re-entry, I can’t really say how difficult this would be (I presume very difficult), but either way, significant negative media coverage for something that is, it seems, a pretty fair point (that China designed the rocket in such a way to where controlled re-entries would be impossible, thus playing the odds), may lead China to put more effort into controlled re-entries.
- Finally, it’s a bit speculative, but it’s plausible that this event could make people more aware of space debris and related issues in general. People may well underestimate the extent to which “space is hard”, which might make things like collision risk seem trivial, but I think a situation like the LM-5B re-entry may make people more aware of the intricacies and difficulties of spaceflight.
2) JZYJ Completes Hot Test of Whole Engine
Launch startup JZYJ announced on Thursday 6 May that they had conducted a hot-fire test of the fully-assembled Longyun engine. The Longyun engine is a 80t thrust gas generator cycle engine that burns liquid methane and liquid oxygen, and one of the two engines designed by China launch startup Jiuzhou Yunjian, the other one being the Lingyun engine which is a 10t thrust methalox engine (and which was the first engine they developed). This is one of the first test firings of the Longyun engine, with likely many more to come to test different levels of thrust and restarting the rocket engine multiple times, two key features for any VTVL reusable rocket.
Maybe there’s one technical specification that’s worth mentioning here, and definitely, something that JZYJ has been playing as a competitive advantage: it has developed a torch igniter system, which is the system that triggers the combustion when the rocket turbopumps start pumping the oxidizer and fuel into the combustion chamber. Traditionally ignition systems use hypergolic fuels which react spontaneously when in contact or pyrotechnic charges. The disadvantage suggested by JZYJ is that these systems are not optimized for multiple engine starts.
JZYJ has shown videos of the igniter it has developed, which likely uses a mix of liquid methane and oxygen, combined with a mini combustion chamber and a spark-plug. This is also the system that seems to be used by SpaceX for the Raptor engine.
It is also yet unclear which rockets the 80t Longyun engine will power. JZYJ is a engine manufacturing pure-player and doesn’t have rockets of its own. The Longyun engine being optimized for reusability, it is likely to have a cluster-like architecture of at least 5, 7, 9 engines, for the core module, which is suggestive of a fairly big rocket.
For the smaller Lingyun 10t thrust engine however, there is less uncertainty as it is meant to be the engine of the Linkspace RLV-T6 VTVL prototype, and the recent rocket company 火箭派 (or Rocket Group) announced earlier this year that they would also source the Lingyun engines from JZYJ for its Darwin-1 rocket. Rocket Group is also planning a much larger rocket by 2025, which could use the Longyun engine but none of this is confirmed and a lot of this is speculation. We will have to wait and see.
Interesting development by the company with the least marketable name in Chinese commercial space. I would point out that in contrast to companies like OneSpace, JZYJ has had an impressive level of focus over their relatively short corporate life–develop two really advanced rocket engines. This seems to be paying some dividends, as JZYJ has been making steady progress over the past year in terms of both technological steps to be taken, and also fundraising.
The last thing to point out from my side is that the Longyun was specifically stated as being compatible with a 3.35m diameter rocket and 5-engine configuration (发动机外包络可满足3.35m直径火箭布局5台发动机). Probably it is not a coincidence that the ZQ-2 of Landspace, as well as the Long March-7, among other CASC rockets, also has a diameter of 3.35m. Overall, an interesting example of a company that’s picked a highly specific technology and developed the hell out of it over the past couple of years. Now if only they could find a less awkward English name….
3) CASSPACE announces B+ Funding Round
On 6 May CASSPACE announced a ~200M B+ round of funding. The announcement also noted that they have raised around RMB 600M in the past year from CAS, Yuexiu Capital, Zhongxin, Hunan Aviation and Aerospace Fund (湖南航空航天基金), etc. The article mentions that CASSPACE will have their first launch in H2 2021 of a solid-fueled rocket and that their rocket is part of the CAS’s 13th Five-Year Plan Space Science and Technology Projects. The rocket will have a payload to SSO of 1.5 tons and has already completed a variety of tests.
A lot of money being put into CASSPACE recently, and indeed, this is not the only second-tier/second-generation launch company to be having a big year. 2021 has seen Tianbing Aerospace and JZYJ also raise more money while reaching various technological milestones, while also seeing new entrants such as “Rocket Group” of Huzhou (火箭派). Chinese launch is starting to get pretty bubbly, particularly as more established commercial companies such as Landspace, iSpace, and Galactic Energy move closer to consistent launches. It’s hard to know with certainty, but it’s a safe bet that a lot of the future demand for constellation launches by China will be soaked up by CALT/SAST, Expace China Rocket, Landspace, iSpace, and others.
Companies like JZYJ have clearly articulated a unique value proposition–focus on engines–but others, such as the aforementioned Rocket Group, seem to be showing up to a bar with a closing time of midnight at 11:50 pm and hoping to get sloshed. It’s possible, but it would require impressive efficiency. CASSPACE may be a little bit different in that there will be demand from the CAS to launch various satellites, this demand will likely increase, and CASSPACE can likely capture some/much of this demand. But at the end of the day, even in that best-case scenario, one could argue that the CAS probably does not need their own dedicated rocket launch company, especially given the number of commercial launchers being developed at the same time.
And speaking for a crowded commercial launch landscape….
4) OneSpace “close to” raising a new round of funding for its Linglong solid and liquid-fueled rockets, plans to IPO in 2022
We heard over the past week in the Chinese media that OneSpace was close to raising a new round of funding. This seems to confirm the comeback of the rocket company, which was rumored to be in dire straits after failing the orbital launch attempt of its OSM solid-fueled rocket.
As reported in the DFH episode of Feb 1-7, OneSpace had successfully raised a round of funding in September 2020, and successfully performed a suborbital launch of an OS-X (6B) rocket in February 2021. The fact that they may be able to raise another round of funding a mere 7-8 months after the previous round shows the renewed attractiveness of the company.
Perhaps two things were especially of interest in the media report:
The future round of funding would be aimed at two objectives: first, at financing the construction of OneSpace’s Beijing, Chongqing and Xi’an industrial facilities, as well as funding the Linglong series of rockets, which includes the Linglong 1 solid-fueled rockets and the Linglong 2 liquid-fueled rockets. For those that have been following Chinese space for a while, this may come as a surprise: OneSpace has been known for a long time to be an exclusive manufacturer of solid-fueled rockets, and actually was almost the only rocket company to do so: most companies went for a mix for liquid and solid (such as iSpace, Galactic Energy). This seems to be the new strategy of OneSpace.
we can expect the Linglong-1 family to be a rebadged version of the previous OS-M family. There will be the Linglong 1A (with a core stage and no side boosters), 1B (with 2 side boosters), and 1C (with 4 side boosters), not unlike the previous OS-M, OS-M2 and OS-M4. The three variants will be based on OneSpace’s 25t and 60t thrust solid rocket engines.
Unfortunately, information on the Linglong-2 liquid-fueled rocket still remains scarce.
I’m not sure what to make of these recent evolutions. It definitely shows a positive dynamic on the side of OneSpace: new and frequent rounds of funding, ambitious launch projects. And they even announced that they planned to IPO on China’s Star Board in 2022. But then on the other hand, the Chinese launch landscape is (over) crowded, and OneSpace is a very latecomer to the world of liquid-fueled launch, with competitors such as iSpace or Galactic Energy close to achieving multi-ton payload capability VTVL reusable liquid-fueled rockets, and Landspace is also not far behind. And that is not to mention many others: Deep Blue Aerospace, JZYJ, CASSpace, Tianbing, …
Given OneSpace’s rocky past, it remains to be seen if there will be much space for the company in a year or two. I don’t know, Blaine would you bet your money on OneSpace?
What a shocker, OneSpace rising from the dead and making an appearance on none other than the official website of the Liangjiang New District of Chongqing. Quite a lot to unpack here. First, a big takeaway–even the most struggling companies in Chinese commercial space can become successful if they find a motivated enough province or city government. In this case, we have Liangjiang, Chongqing. For a bit of context–Chongqing is one of China’s megacities, with the provincial-level city (an area the size of Austria that really cannot be considered a single city) having a population of more than 30M people. That said, it is also smack dab in the middle of China’s less-developed western provinces. This positioning has meant that Chongqing has seen a lot of investment over the past 5-10 years, as the Central Government has tried to develop the western part of China. When it was established in 2010, the Liangjiang New Area was only the 3rd sub-provincial new area, after Binhai in Tianjin and Pudong in Shanghai. That being the case, Liangjiang is a quite wealthy patron indeed, if one were to be looking for patrons of rocket factories.
Which takes us to OneSpace. Interesting update for sure. The move into liquid rockets is, I agree with Jean, a risky one, they are pretty much a later-comer to this very crowded game in China. The funding and support from Liangjiang aside, OneSpace remains probably the 6th or 7th most-developed commercial launch company in China, and others are moving more rapidly in areas that are more well-defined (take JZYJ as an example). I’m also curious about what happened to OneSpace’s apparent satellite/supporting equipment manufacturing business. The press release does note that OneSpace is also focusing on electronics and other subsystems-level rocket components, but it seems that they are continuing to pivot from one idea to another without a lot of follow-throughs. So, from that perspective, I am not sure that I would be putting my money on OneSpace.
Some final points: interesting that the article noted more than RMB 100M of contracts signed by OneSpace in Q1 2021. Also interesting that the article specified the rules by which OneSpace will try to IPO in 2022–basically, the Shanghai STAR Board has several different sets of standards to list a company, one of which the listed company must meet. In the case of OneSpace, the article notes that they would likely list under conditions of 1) Estimated market cap of not less than RMB 1.5B, 2) Operating income of most recent year is not less than RMB 200M, and 3) Cumulative R&D investment over the past 3 years is not less than 15% of cumulative operating income over the past 3 years.
This has been another episode of the Dongfang Hour China Aero/Space News Roundup. If you’ve made it this far, we thank you for your kind attention, and look forward to seeing you next time! Until then, don’t forget to follow us on YouTube, Twitter, or LinkedIn, or your local podcast source.
Blaine Curcio has spent the past 10 years at the intersection of China and the space sector. Blaine has spent most of the past decade in China, including Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Beijing, working as a consultant and analyst covering the space/satcom sector for companies including Euroconsult and Orbital Gateway Consulting. When not talking about China space, Blaine can be found reading about economics/finance, exploring cities, and taking photos.
Jean Deville is a graduate from ISAE, where he studied aerospace engineering and specialized in fluid dynamics. A long-time aerospace enthusiast and China watcher, Jean was previously based in Toulouse and Shenzhen, and is currently working in the aviation industry between Paris and Shanghai. He also writes on a regular basis in the China Aerospace Blog. Hobbies include hiking, astrophotography, plane spotting, as well as a soft spot for Hakka food and (some) Ningxia wines.