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.
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.
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.
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.
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
An artist’s impression of a microsatellite developed for the QB50 project. A depiction of the Banxing 2 microsatellite.
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.
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.
A photo taken by the Banxing 2 microsatellite on Oct 31, showing Shenzhou XI docked with the Tiangong II space lab.