Space Transportation (凌空天行), yet another Chinese launcher start-up entering the NewSpace race

Yet another new Chinese launcher start-up has been revealed and put into the spotlight this week: Space Transportation (which is a rough translation of its Chinese name: 凌空天行). The company was actually founded back in August 2018, but had been keeping a low profile ever since. However last Thursday, Source Code Capital (源码资本) published on its WeChat official account that “it had provided Space Transportation Co. several tens of millions of RMB” (1 USD = approx. 6.71 RMB) in an angel round to fund the start-up’s ambitious development agenda. This news has rapidly propagated through the Chinese financial media over the past few days, and is bound to reach English readers soon (including through this article!).

space-transporation-logo.png
Fig. 1 – Source Code Capital (angel investor) and Space Transportation (Credit: Source Code Capital)

Space Transportation Co. (凌空天行)

Based in Beijing, founded in August 2018, Space Transportation Co. is a launcher manufacturer which aims at developing reusable rockets for small payloads (100 – 1000 kg payload capacity on its Tian Xing – 1 rocket [1]). From this perspective, Space Transportation may seem like just another Chinese rocket company, within an already very crowded and competitive private small launcher landscape that has emerged in China over the past 4 years (see China’s NewSpace: A Mapping of Its 60+ Start-ups). Among the dozen already existing Chinese rocket start-ups, almost all are aiming for the same payload range as Space Transportation, and are already covering a wide range of technologies (including solid and liquid methane/kerosene/hydrogen rocket engines). Even rocket reusability is “nothing new”, as it’s already being explored by several start-ups including Linkspace and iSpace, as early as 2014.

So what made a rather respected VC company like Source Code Capital invest in a latecomer in the launcher space race?

An original reusable system: gliding and a parachute system instead of SpaceX-style retropropulsive landing

Tianxing-1Fig. 1 – Space Transportation’s Tian Xing-1 (Credit: Source Code Capital)

For one, Space Transportation has proposed an ambitious gliding landing system for rocket reusability. This is obvious on the illustrations of Tian Xing-1, which feature a pair of fin-shaped wings supposed to provide lift to enable gliding. According to Source Code Capital’s publication, the rocket won’t rely exclusively on gliding (which would probably require a larger wing surface to provide sufficient lift), and landing will also include the use of a parachute system in the final stages. Such a system is quite attractive for many reasons: the possibility to retrieve a larger part of the rocket and not just the first stage (according to Space Transportation Co.), and the enabling of reusability while only loading the necessary fuel to reach orbit (retropropulsive landing on the other hand requires loading additional fuel for the landing phase).

It is worth noting that although this may seem very attractive on paper, such a system will also come with a fair share of technical challenges (especially since Space Transportation claims that most systems are developed in-house). It is also interesting to note that such a reusable design is not exactly new. Although it has never been implemented in China so far, we know that CASC is working on gliding and parachute-based techniques for Long March rockets (mostly for safety reasons, see [3]). A few other projects, both within and outside China, have also explored lift-based techniques for landing (Airbus Defence & Space’s Adeline project) or take-off (Stratolaunch Systems, CASIC’s Tengyun project).
UPDATE: This is not to mention the all too well known American Space Shuttle, along with Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, Boeing’s X-37, and some other Russian prototypes.

While it is perhaps too early to say more about Space Transportation’s rocket’s feasibility, it is fair to say that it will face fierce competition from other domestic launcher start-ups, all aiming at the same payload range, and many which have reached a far more advanced level of development (One Space for example is aiming at an orbital launch of its OS-M rocket in late March 2019, a first in China for a private space company [4]). Space Transportation will also have to go through a smooth design phase in order to raise further rounds of investment, and prove the competitiveness of its technical choices.

References:

[1] 源码成员企业「凌空天行」宣布完成数千万人民币天使轮融资, Source Code Capital WeChat Official account, March 7 2019
[2] 民营火箭再添新玩家,「凌空天行」宣布完成源码资本领投数千万人民币天使轮融资, 36kr, March 7 2019
[3] China to test rocket reusability with planned Long March 8 launcher, SpaceNews, April 30 2018
[4] China’s OneSpace completes rocket assembly ahead of first orbital launch, SpaceNews, March 12 2019

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