Chinese Space Startups Aim to Reach SpaceX’s Milestones from a Decade Ago, Focusing on Lower Costs and Reusable Rockets

China’s commercial space industry established a new launch record in 2023, achieving a total of 67 orbit-level space launches, which constituted 30% of the global total. This performance placed China second, trailing only the United States with 116 launches (accounting for 52% of the global total).

However, in terms of launch payload, SpaceX dominated the year again, achieving a total launch mass of 1,286 tons. This represented approximately 80% of the global launch mass, far surpassing the combined total of launch payload masses from all other countries and regions.

Numerous Chinese space experts believe that Chinese space launch companies may be lagging behind industry leader SpaceX by approximately ten years in terms of technology.

In order to bridge this technological gap with the United States, China is supporting private space companies to play an increasingly pivotal role in China’s space program, in addition to its state-run space programs managed by entities like the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CAST).

The Limitations of China’s State-Led Space Industry

For decades, China’s space industry has been primarily driven by state-led scientific research programs, resulting in a limited range of industrialized products. Centered on major state-level space engineering projects, this approach has left the industry with significant limitations.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CAST), a major player in the Chinese space sector, recently acknowledged that it faces significant technological gaps in comparison to leading private space companies like SpaceX. This rare admission highlights the limitations of China’s state-led space sector, which has historically lacked the innovation and competition that can drive technological advancements.

One of the primary limitations is the focus on high reliability, often at the cost of increased expenses, longer development cycles, and limited functionality.

For instance, traditional Chinese satellites prioritize reliability, leading to non-standardized manufacturing processes and difficulties in mass production. The average manufacturing cycle for a satellite in China is around 36 months, which is too long to support the needs of commercial aerospace and hinders the establishment of commercial satellite constellations.

Additionally, the inflexibility of traditional satellites poses another limitation. These satellites cannot be iteratively upgraded on demand, and their limited functionality results in low utilization rates. This rigidity prevents the Chinese space industry from quickly adapting to new technologies and market demands.

Private Chinese Space Enterprises Aim to Reduce Cost

In recognition of the limitations of the state-led space industry, China’s space sector has embraced private companies to overcome technological gaps and advance the industry. This shift is crucial for China to compete globally in the rapidly evolving space industry.

Currently, the cost of space transportation in China, from the ground to an altitude of 500 kilometers, stands at approximately 120,000 yuan (US$16,683) per kilogram. In contrast, SpaceX has reduced the price of similar services to around 5,000 US dollars.

The primary focus of these private commercial space enterprises is to reduce satellite manufacturing costs, expand commercial satellite applications, decrease launch costs, and improve rocket carrying capacity.

One such Chinese commercial space company is i-Space, which is developing low-cost and high-performance commercial reusable launch vehicles. i-Space aims to reduce the launch price to less than half of the current launch vehicles by 2025, which would be nearing the price level of SpaceX but still 60% more expensive than SpaceX’s prices.

Building Reusable Rockets

The current focus of development in reusable rockets is vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), primarily spearheaded by SpaceX. Liquid rocket engines offer superior performance, the ability to restart multiple times, and adjustable thrust, enabling vertical recovery of the rocketβ€”a crucial aspect for reducing launch costs.

Chinese commercial space companies are making significant progress in this field. In 2023, the i-Space Hyperbola-2 verification rocket successfully completed its second flight test at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China, achieving a "grasshopper jump" of over 340 meters in height.

The company aims to launch the Hyperbola-3 rocket by the end of 2025, with the rocket designed to enter orbit, return to Earth, and be reused. This would mark a significant milestone, indicating that the company has achieved a feat similar to what SpaceX accomplished in 2015.

China is also pursuing industrialized satellite manufacturing. In 2021, the satellite super factory manufacturing base in Taizhou was completed, and the first test satellite was produced.

Through innovative mass production of the AIT (satellite assembly, integration, and testing) model, the factory has significantly shortened its research and development cycle, achieving a daily production rate of one satellite. Additionally, production costs have been reduced by approximately 45%.


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