Mi­crosatel­lites set to blast off for suc­cess

Fall­ing costs and rapid de­vel­op­ment mean the sec­tor is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly vi­able for pri­vate op­er­a­tors. Cheng Yingqi re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA -

While the ac­com­plish­ments of China’s mi­crosatel­lite in­dus­try have re­cently been over­shad­owed by the suc­cess of the na­tion’s manned space pro­gram, the sec­tor has de­vel­oped so rapidly that the cost of pro­vid­ing com­mer­cial ser­vices has fallen to a level where the use of small satel­lites is now within the range of pri­vate com­pa­nies.

Mi­crosatel­lites, usu­ally weigh­ing less than 500 kilo­grams, are of lower mass and size than tra­di­tional craft, such as those used by the mil­i­tary, which use cus­tom­ized parts to en­sure com­plete re­li­a­bil­ity. By con­trast, the com­po­nents used in mi­crosatel­lites, which have less strin­gent stan­dards of de­pend­abil­ity, can be bought at hard­ware stores, mak­ing them per­fect for com­mer­cial use.

“Satel­lites can watch over the globe and pro­vide a view that other de­vices can’t. For ex­am­ple, we can mon­i­tor traf­fic at any port or lo­gis­tics cen­teronEarth and thus cal­cu­late the scale of op­er­a­tions, which has great com­mer­cial value,” said Cao Jin, a se­nior en­gi­neer at the In­no­va­tion Academy for Mi­crosatel­lites, which is af­fil­i­ated to the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences.

“A num­ber of in­no­va­tors in China, in­clud­ing re­search in­sti­tutes, col­leges and star­tups, are ac­tively ex­plor­ing the com­mer­cial value of mi­crosatel­lites,” he said.

The coun­try’s ma­jor de­vel­op­ers are State-owned re­search agen­cies such as the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences, China Aero­space Science and Tech­nol­ogy Corp and China Aero­space Science and In­dus­try Corp.

One ex­am­ple is Cao’s academy, which sent the Banx­ing 2, or Com­pan­ion 2, mi­crosatel­lite into space with the Tian­gong II space lab in Septem­ber.

The satel­lite’s mis­sion is to pho­to­graph the Shen­zhou-XI manned space­ship, which docked with the space lab on Oct 19 for a 30-day mis­sion that is sched­uled to draw to a close soon.

De­vel­op­ment bar­ri­ers

Cur­rently, the ap­pli­ca­tion of mi­crosatel­lites is lim­ited to State-funded re­search projects, and only few have been pro­ducedand­launched by pri­vate com­pa­nies.

“China’s com­mer­cial space busi­ness is just be­gin­ning to ex­plore op­por­tu­ni­ties, but we have not yet de­vel­oped a ma­ture busi­ness model that will make a profit,” said Huang He, an as­so­ci­ate professor at the Shaanxi En­gi­neer­ing Lab­o­ra­tory for Mi­crosatel­lites at North­west­ern Polytech­ni­cal Uni­ver­sity in Xi’an.

Ac­cord­ing to Huang, the cost of de­vel­op­ing mi­crosatel­lites has been re­duced to a rel­a­tively low level, rang­ing from 3 mil­lion yuan ($433,000) to 20 mil­lion. That is about 20 to 30 per­cent of the cost of tra­di­tional satel­lites. How­ever, an ab­sence of op­er­a­tors is prov­ing the ma­jor bar­rier to full com­mer­cial­iza­tion.

“The key to es­tab­lish­ing the in­dus­try is ap­pli­ca­tion. If you want to use mi­crosatel­lites to pro­vide full-time Wi-Fi sig­nals or dig­i­tal maps, launch­ing a con­stel­la­tion of satel­lites will not be enough; you have to de­velop high-qual­ity client ap­pli­ca­tion ter­mi­nals (sys­tems that can re­ceive sig­nals from the satel­lite and pro­vide ser­vices to users) as well,” he said.

The lab­o­ra­tory is plan­ning to pro­duce a 36-satel­lite con­stel­la­tion for a com­pany that is pro­vid­ing ser­vices for ships to send out short mes­sages in the mid­dle of the ocean. Each­satel­lite will cost about 5 mil­lion yuan.

“As more and more star­tups emerge, the mar­ket is be­gin­ning to rec­og­nize the value of satel­lite-based ser­vices,” he said.

Short-term goals

An­other ob­sta­cle is that launch ser­vices are mo­nop­o­lized by State-owned com­pa­nies, which have shown lit­tle in­ter­est in civil ap­pli­ca­tions. How­ever, the pic­ture is set to change as a re­sult of com­pe­ti­tion from com­pa­nies over­seas.

“Be­com­ingChina’sS­paceXis just our short-term goal,” Han Qing­ping, pres­i­dent of Chi­naRocket Co in Bei­jing, told a me­dia brief­ing last month.

Space Ex­plo­ration Tech­nolo­gies Corp, known as SpaceX, is a US aero­space man­u­fac­turer and provider of space trans­port ser­vices. It is fa­mous for de­vel­op­ing the Fal­con 1, Fal­con 9 launch ve­hi­cle and the Dragon cargo space­craft, which fer­ried sup­plies to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

Chi­naRocket, es­tab­lished on Oct 19, is a sub­sidiary of the State-owned China Aero­space Science and Tech­nol­ogy Corp, the main con­trac­tor for the coun­try’s space pro­gram. It plans to ex­ploit the tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise of its par­ent­com­pany, and ex­pects to be­gin car­ry­ing cargo into space and pro­vid­ing high-at­mos­phere pas­sen­ger ser­vices by as early as 2020.

“With 60 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence of space launches, our tech­no­log­i­cal foun­da­tion is very strong. Also, (Elon) Musk (founder of SpaceX) has lim­ited funds, but China has am­ple cap­i­tal,” Han said. “SpaceX only has two types of Fal­con launch ve­hi­cle, but our com­pany owns a dozen types of Long March rocket that can carry pay­loads rang­ing from hun­dreds of kilo­grams to 20 tons.”

In Fe­bru­ary, China Aero­space Science and In­dus­try Corp, an­other State-owned de­fense tech­nol­ogy gi­ant, set up Ex­pace Tech­nol­ogy Co to mar­ket its Kuaizhou-se­ries of solid-fu­eled rock­ets. Ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, the first Kuaizhou rocket will blast off in De­cem­ber with a cargo of two mi­crosatel­lites.

“With ref­er­ence to the ex­pe­ri­ence of the US, the pri­mary ques­tion is how to in­volve more com­pa­nies and im­prove the qual­ity of the par­tic­i­pants,” said Cao, from the mi­crosatel­lite academy.

In­vest­ment

Last month, the US gov­ern­ment un­veiled a project aimed at boost­ing the com­mer­cial space in­dus­try by en­cour­ag­ing NASA to in­vest $30 mil­lion in mi­crosatel­lites which would al­low smaller com­pa­nies to en­ter the sec­tor.

“The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment

Left:

Right:

An artist’s im­pres­sion of a mi­crosatel­lite de­vel­oped for the QB50 project. A de­pic­tion of the Banx­ing 2 mi­crosatel­lite.

PHOTOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY — CHENG YINGQI

The boom in af­ford­able com­mer­cial mi­crosatel­lites has stirred con­cerns about the amount of de­bris left float­ing in space.

Ac­cord­ing to data re­leased by the US Space Sur­veil­lance Net­work, there are about 23,000 piece of de­bris with a di­am­e­ter of more than 10 cm, while there are about 500,000 smaller ob­jects, and the num­ber is ris­ing rapidly.

Only 5 per­cent of all the man-made ob­jects in or­bit are still func­tion­ing, which means that 95 per­cent is space de­bris.

Large or small de­bris mov­ing at high speed can fa­tally dam­age space­craft, which poses se­ri­ous challenges for the space in­dus­try.

In re­sponse, NASA be­gan to lead the de­vel­op­ment of de­bris mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures in the 1990s. In 2001, the US gov­ern­ment adopted a new or­bital de­bris mit­i­ga­tion stan­dard for NASA mis­sions, and the US en­dorsed the UN’s Or­bital De­bris Mit­i­ga­tion Guide­lines.

The rapid de­vel­op­ment of mi­crosatel­lites has prompted con­cerns about the man­age­ment of space de­bris.

“Mi­crosatel­lite man­age­ment has some unique fea­tures be­cause of the satel­lites’ char­ac­ter­is­tics,” Liu Jing, deputy di­rec­tor of the space de­bris sur­veil­lance cen­ter at the China Na­tional Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, told a fo­rum in Au­gust.

In 2014, the num­ber of mi­crosatel­lites launched by China ex­ceeded tra­di­tional satel­lites for the first time, and has increased ex­plo­sively since then.

“If we do not take tough ac­tion, or­bits will soon be oc­cu­pied by mi­crosatel­lites, which could cause se­vere dam­age to any ob­jects we send up in the fu­ture,” Liu said.

LIU XIAO / XIN­HUA

Sci­en­tists as­sess mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment at the satel­lite ground-con­trol sta­tion at North­west­ern Polytech­ni­cal Uni­ver­sity in Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The sta­tion is one of three around the world par­tic­i­pat­ing in the QB50 mi­crosatel­lites project funded by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion.

XIN­HUA

A photo taken by the Banx­ing 2 mi­crosatel­lite on Oct 31, show­ing Shen­zhou XI docked with the Tian­gong II space lab.

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