Trial and Error
Undeterred by the failure of the its private satellite launch, China’s private space industry set for relaunch
Since its establishment in 1958, the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert has witnessed more than 110 freeze-frame moments of successful launches, including the country’s first satellite Dongfanghong-1 in 1970, the Shenzhou 5 manned spacecraft that carried the first Chinese astronaut into space in 2003 and two Tiangong space laboratories in 2011 and 2016.
But a departure on October 27 broke the longtime record of success in the center’s history, when the ZQ-1, China’s first three-stage carrier rocket built by a private company to carry small payloads, blasted off at 4 a.m. The solid propellant launch vehicle is 19 meters tall and has a takeoff weight of 27 tons. Unfortunately, it failed to reach its intended orbit.
Landspace, the Beijing-based private rocket manufacturer that developed the ZQ1, said the rocket’s first and second stages worked well and the payload separation was as expected. The malfunction occurred only at the third stage. However, Zhang Changwu, CEO of Landspace, sees a silver lining in the debacle.
“We succeeded in launching the rocket,” Zhang told the media. “The experience we gained from evaluating the rocket’s flight conditions will help us remodel the rocket as well as advance new rocket research and development.”
Despite its limited success, Landspace’s trial won applause from the public because the launch represents the development of China’s commercial space industry. In the past, the state had a monopoly in China’s aerospace exploration industry. As private manufacturers are entering the sector, it’s important for these newcomers to gain experience from errors and forge ahead.
“This is the best era for the commercial aerospace industry,” Zhang said at a forum on aerospace in Harbin, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, in April. His company was the first private enterprise in China allowed to join the rocket market and also the first to acquire a license for launching carrier rockets. Zhang attributed the growth to the global trend of space industry commercialization and favorable government policies.
State-owned companies and institutes dominated China’s aerospace exploration until 2014, when private companies were allowed to develop and launch rockets.
China’s Space Activities in 2016, a white paper issued by the State Council Information Office, said “non-governmental capital and other social sectors are encouraged to participate in space-related activities, including scientific research and production, space infrastructure, space information products and services, and use of satellites to increase the level of commercialization of the space industry.” According to the document, the government has increased its cooperation with private investors, and the mechanism for government procurement of astronautic products and services has been improved.
The private carrier rocket has a huge market in the satellite launch business. As the cost of a rocket launch continues to decrease due to market competition and technological advancements, enterprises will be ready to pay for their satellites. Landspace already has an order from Danish company Gomspace, which was placed in January, marking the first rocket launch service order from an international client to a Chinese private enterprise.
The lucrative market and policy support have encouraged more private entrepreneurs to embrace rocket research and development. Today, there are at least nine private space startups in China, like Landspace, Space Honor and One Space, according to Itjuzi. com, a database of Chinese companies. They are growing fast since their establishment two or three
Spectators watch China’s first private three-stage carrier rocket, the take off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on October 27. The rocket failed to put the satellite it carried into orbit