In the last six or so months, a range of small Chinese rocket startups have begun to make serious progress in the nascent commercial industry, including several inaugural orbital launch attempts, extensive propulsion testing, and more. Rising above the fray are a handful of uniquely notable companies: Landspace, Linkspace, OneSpace, and iSpace (creative, I know).
While the names leave something lacking, several companies have truly impressive ambitions and can already point to major tech development programs as evidence for their follow-through. Linkspace is arguably the most interesting company with respect to what they are doing today, while Landspace has the ambition and expertise to build and launch some truly capable rockets in the near-term.
OneSpace & iSpace
- OneSpace recently made its first attempt at orbital launch after completing an OS-M1 rocket, nominally capable of placing 200 kg (450 lb) in a 300 km (190 mi) low Earth orbit (LEO). The March 2019 attempt failed 45 seconds into launch, likely caused by an improperly-installed gyroscope that guided the rocket in the wrong direction.
- This failure is by no means a bad thing. Reaching orbit on one’s first try is extraordinarily rare, particularly for private companies with no prior experience developing launch vehicles. SpaceX’s first three Falcon 1 launches failed before success was found on Flight 4. Rocket Lab’s Electron launch debut was forced to abort before reaching orbit due to faulty third-party communications equipment.
- OneSpace has several additional suborbital OS-X launches and may be able to attempt one additional OS-M1 orbital launch before the end of 2019.
- Down the road, the company wants to enhance its payload capabilities by adding additional solid rocket strap-on boosters to OS-M1 (designated M2 and M4). OS-M4 would be able to launch as much as 750 kg (1650 lb) into LEO.
- iSpace is in a similar boat. Its Hyperbola-1 rocket relies on three solid stages and a liquid fourth stage and is designed to place 300 kg (660 lb) into LEO. iSpace has plans to attempt the company’s first orbital launch as early as June 2019.
- Having already raised more than $100M in investment, iSpace also has strong backing for the development of its next-gen Hyperbola-2 rocket. The methalox-based vehicle will have a reusable booster capable of vertical landings and should be able to launch almost 2 tons to LEO. The rocket’s first launch is expected to occur no earlier than late 2020.
- In April 2019, Linkspace began flight-testing a sort of miniature version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Grasshopper testbed. Known as NewLine Baby, the small suborbital prototype is designed to improve the company’s technical familiarity with vertically landing orbital-class rocket boosters after missions. Thus far, hop testing has been a great success.
- Baby weighs 1.5 t (1100 lb), is 8.1m (27 ft) tall, and is powered by five liquid methane and oxygen (methalox) rocket engines.
- The company hopes to transfer the knowledge gained into NewLine-1, a partially reusable orbital-class rocket designed to place 200 kg in LEO. Linkspace could attempt their first orbital launch as early as 2021.
- The two-stage rocket’s booster would separate a few minutes into launch and attempt a vertical landing on a pad or boat, the same approach SpaceX has used with unprecedented success.
- The similarities with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 are honestly not the worst thing. SpaceX has no patent on vertically landing rockets and has never attempted to corner the industry. Copying a successful new paradigm is certainly better than doing nothing.
- (For the record, Blue Origin did the exact opposite and attempted to patent vertically landing rockets at sea in 2014, before the company had conducted a single serious launch and at the same time as SpaceX was already planning barge recoveries of Falcon 9 boosters.)
- One could even say that Linkspace and several other Chinese companies are actually doing better than industry heavyweights like ULA and Arianespace by simply embracing the new paradigm, as opposed to denial, pearl-clutching, and half-measure responses.
- Finally, there is Landspace. Perhaps the most exciting company of the bunch, Landspace is developing a fairly large methalox launch vehicle named ZhuQue-2 (ZQ-2). Powered by several fairly large TQ-12 liquid rocket engines, ZQ-2 is designed to launch up to 4t (8800 lb) to an orbit of 200 km (120 mi) and would produce up to 2650 kN (600,000 lbf) of thrust at liftoff, about a third of SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
- The two-stage ZQ-2 is not currently being designed for reusability, but an upgraded three-stage variant (ZQ-2A) would feature a much larger payload fairing and improve payload performance to 200 km by 50%, from 4t to 6t.
- Landspace will attempt ZQ-2’s inaugural launch as early as 2020. Critically, the company is just completed the first full-scale prototype of the TQ-12 engine meant to power the rocket and could begin static fire tests just a month or two from now.
- Tianque-12 (TQ-12) is a fairly unique engine. Powered by liquid methane and oxygen (methalox), TQ-12 uses a gas-generator propulsion cycle and is designed to produce up to 80t (175,000 lbf) of thrust. In a sense, TQ-12 is basically a slightly less powerful methalox variant of SpaceX’s Merlin 1D engine.
- The fact that Landspace is already in a position to begin static fire tests of the engine powering its next-gen rocket bodes very well for the company’s future plans. At a minimum, it likely means that Landspace is much closer to offering multi-ton commercial launch services compared to its competitors.
- Aside from its next-gen ambitions, Landspace has also developed a much smaller three-stage rocket known as ZQ-1. Capable of launching up to 300 kg into LEO, ZQ-1 nearly reached orbit on its October 2018 launch debut, failing midway through its third-stage burn.
- For now, the Chinese launch startup scene is downright frenetic. The title of “first private Chinese company to reach orbit” has yet to be awarded, and more than half a dozen groups are practically racing to secure it.
- SpaceX’s CRS-17 Cargo Dragon spacecraft successfully rendezvoused and berthed with the ISS on May 6th.
- Potentially less than two weeks after the Falcon 9’s May 4th CRS-17 launch, SpaceX’s first dedicated Starlink mission is scheduled to occur as early as May 13th, although delays of a few days are likely.
- SpaceX’s second West Coast launch of 2019 – carrying Canada’s Radarsat Constellation – finally has an official launch date – June 11th. The mission will reuse Falcon 9 B1051.
- Falcon Heavy’s third launch remains tentatively scheduled no earlier than June 22nd.
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