A Recap of 2020 in Chinese Space (in 10 Points)

2020 is coming to an end, and how unusual it has been, to say the least. This year has been an extremely eventful one for Chinese space, with many “firsts”, some major successes, as well as some failures. In this blog post, I do the useful exercise of looking retrospectively at 2020, and picking the most significant events. Without any further ado, let’s begin.

1 – 39 Launches and “Second Place”

With the final Chinese launch of 2020 being that of the Long March 4C (sending up the Yaogan-33 EO satellite), China wrapped up the year with a total of 39 launches, matching its precedent record of 2018. While definitely an impressive performance, China shifts to second place behind the US (44 launches), after being in the lead for two consecutive years. The US count includes 12 SpaceX launches for Starlink, a very significant contribution to the US lead, while China has yet to deploy any large scale communications constellation. Large national programs such as Beidou, Haiyang, Gaofen or Yaogan satellites have on the other hand significantly pumped up China’s performance, adding up to 16 launches altogether. The completion or near completion of these EO/satnav constellations in 2020 could mean fewer launches in 2021. However, China’s upcoming Space Station program (11 launches over 2 years), a more aggressive deployment of Chinese comms constellations, and a growing maturity of the private space sector could make up for this. A fascinating thing to watch out for next year.

Flames of Long March 5 (Credits: CNSA)

2 – A Slew of Inaugural Launches & New Rockets

Among the 39 Chinese launches, there were some remarkable ones to note:

  • Inaugural launch of the Long March 5B: the Long March 5B is a variant of the Long March 5 optimized for launch into LEO. Long March 5B launched successfully this year on May 5th, lofting an important new spacecraft for China: the Next Generation Crewed Spacecraft (新一代载人飞船), discussed further down in this post. The Long March 5B is able to put roughly 25 tons into LEO, and was developed notably for the deployment of China’s Space Station, which will begin next year.
  • Inaugural launch of the Long March 8: Long March 8 launched successfully on December 22 2020, and was one of the last of China’s new generation rockets that was yet to launch (the others being LM-5, 6 and 7). Long March 8 puts 4-5 tons into SSO, and fills the gap between Long March 6 and 7 in terms of payload. While it is based on already proven technology (YF-100 kerolox and YF-75 hydrolox engines), the launch vehicle is of special interest since CASC announced in 2018 that it would be the first to benefit from a reusable architecture and perform vertical take-off vertical landing (VTVL). The rocket launched on December 22 was expendable, and significant modifications will have to be performed by CALT to make it reusable.
  • Inaugural launch of Ceres-1: Galactic Energy, a private launch startup based in Beijing, successfully performed the launch of its Ceres-1 solid-fueled light-lift launch vehicle on November 7th, becoming the second Chinese private company to ever do so. Galactic Energy was founded as late as in 2018, and is often considered as a “second generation launch company”, as opposed to the earlier incumbents. It is undoubtedly one of the fastest-moving NewSpace launch companies, on track to perform the first launch of its reusable kerolox rocket, Pallas-1, in 2022.
  • Failure of Kuaizhou-11: Kuaizhou-11 is the heavier rocket of the Kuaizhou family, operated by the launch startup Expace. It is able to put 1 ton into SSO, and complements the smaller Kuaizhou-1A which payload capacity is limited to 400 kg. Kuaizhou-11 failed its first launch on July 10 2020.
  • Failure of the Long March 7A: Long March 7A is a variant of the already operational 2-stage Long March 7, and will be one of China’s future workhorses for launch into GTO. Long March 7A has an additional hydrolox 3rd stage based on the YF-75 engine, a piece of technology already used on the Long March 3 and 5. Long March 7A failed its inaugural launch on March 16 2020.

3 – A Surge in EO Capabilities

2020 was undoubtedly one of the biggest years for Chinese Earth observation capabilities. Gaofen, Haiyang, and Yaogan (respectively the high-resolution, the marine, and the reconnaissance EO programs of China) were especially active. 8 Gaofen, 7 Yaogan, and 4 Haiyang satellites were launched in a total of 14 launches. Beyond China’s state-led programs, a commercial company has also been building up its EO capabilities: Jilin-based Charming Globe (aka CGSTL). A spin-off of the Changchun Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics, Charming Globe is at the time of writing the most-well funded Chinese startup, and potentially a rival of US-based Planet. It is building the Jilin EO constellation, and sent to orbit 11 satellites in 2020 alone, including the Jilin-1 KF01 in-house developed 1.25t (!) satellite.
Another EO event worth noting, Spacety and CETC co-developed and launched the Haisi-1 satellite on December 22, representing the first of Spacety’s upcoming miniSAR satellite series. SAR is one of the lacking points of Chinese commercial space, and China has yet to see emerge a domestic version of Capella or Iceye. The launch of Spacety’s Haisi-1 is a first step in this direction.

4 – Completition of the Beidou 3 Constellation

China completed its 3rd generation satnav constellation this year, with the launch of the last two Beidou 3 satellites. Beidou is a satnav project which goes all the way back to the 1990s, and is of paramount importance for the Chinese military, while also having a large potential for civil applications. Beidou 3 is a full-fledged constellation with global coverage, comparable to GPS, Beidou and Glonass. This is a significant improvement over the previous Beidou 1 and Beidou 2 satellite systems which had a regional focus.

While the constellation is now complete, China’s efforts don’t stop here. It still has a lot of work to do to make space for itself in a market still heavily dominated by GPS. China’s growing edge in key industries such as automobile, telecoms, smartphones or UAVs will no doubt play a strong role in the process.

Ground Tracks of Beidou-3. Beidou-3 is an interesting mix between GEO, IGSO and MEO satellites (Credits: Ruijie Xi)

5 – Satellite Internet Policy & Hints of a Massive 13000 Satellite Constellation

China rolled out in 2020 arguably one of the most significant policy papers for the space industry in recent years: the New Infrastractures project (新基建). The paper in itself is not focused on space, but rather promotes the construction of a new digital infrastructure that will act as an economic multiplier to create jobs and boost emerging industries. The “New Infrastructure” relates to technologies such as 5G, AI, big data, and… satellite Internet. The inclusion of satellite Internet in such a high level policy paper is potentially a guarantee for space startups to receive increased support from investors and local governments (which implement national policies on a local level).

China’s ambitions in this regard seem to have further gained momentum with the creation of a new state-owned entity which can roughly be translated into “China Satellite Network Connectivity Corporation” (中国卫星网络通信集团). According to discussions on Chinese social media, the new company would be in charge of merging the operations of future Chinese (state-owned?) broadband constellations under one roof. While this information has yet to be confirmed, a leaked document in September 2020 showed that China plans to file at the ITU for a 13000-satellite broadband constellation, to be developed in 2 phases. The constellation is dubbed “GW”, which could be short for “Guo Wang” (国网, National Internet/Network) or “Great Wall”. Both names suggest that this would be a state-led initiative.

6 – Major Successes in Space Exploration: Chang’e 5 Lunar Sample Return, Tianwen-1 to Mars & Next-Generation Crewed Vehicle Tested

2020 was an exceptional year for Chinese space exploration. In the domain of human spaceflight, China tested its Next-Generation Crewed Vehicle (NGCV), the Chinese equivalent of the Orion spacecraft, launching it on-board a Long March 5B in May. The NGCV is a massive 22-ton vehicle which will have the job of carrying taikonauts to low Earth orbit, but can also be used for future crewed lunar missions. In October 2020, China also selected its 3rd batch of taikonauts, consisting of 17 men and 1 woman. Worth noting, the new team included 4 scientists (“payload specialists”), when all previous taikonauts were always former Air Force pilots.

(Uncrewed) space exploration also made significant progress, with the success of the Chang’e 5 lunar mission, which launched on November 23 and returned to Earth on the December 16 with 1.7 kg of Moon samples. The mission included a number of “firsts”, such as the world first fully automated docking in lunar orbit. The next mission of China’s Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) will be Chang’e 6, another sample return mission which will take place in 2023.
Another major success for China is the launch of the Tianwen-1 Mars spacecraft, which lifted off in July during the Mars launch window. Worth noting, Tianwen-1 is China’s first independent mission to Mars. It includes an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. Mars missions which include any landing operations are considered to be some of the most complex technical challenges due to the perilous atmospheric entry and the hostile Martian environment. Tianwen-1 will reach Mars in the first half of 2021.

Also worth mentioning for next year: China announced in December 2020 that 11 launches would take place in 2021 and 2022 to assemble China’s Space Station. This includes the Tianhe core module, the Mengtian and Wentian scientific modules, and multiple Shenzhou (crewed) and Tianzhou (cargo) missions.

One of the most remarkable images of 2020: the ultra high resolution mosaics taken by Chang’e 5

7 – Record Fundraising for Chinese NewSpace & Upcoming Milestones

Year after year, the amount of funding raised by Chinese space startups has shot up, and 2020 is no exception. This includes the record fund raisings of several companies, notably:

  • Charming Globe: Charming Globe raised a record 2,46 billion RMB (375 million USD) in November 2020, making it the most well-funded EO startup worldwide, in front of San Francisco-based company Planet.
  • iSpace: iSpace raised 1.2 billion RMB (180 million USD) in a series B round of funding, making it one of the most well-funded Chinese launch companies, alongside Landspace.
  • Landspace: Landspace, another launch company in China, raised a similar amount of 1.2 billion RMB in September 2020. Together with the 600 million RMB raised 9 months prior, Landspace has managed to secure 1.8 billion RMB (275 million USD) over the last 12 months.
  • Galactic Energy: another competing Chinese launch company, Galactic Energy raised 200 million RMB (30 million USD) in November 2020, the same month it successfully completed the orbital launch of its small-lift solid-fueled Ceres-1 rocket.
  • Galaxy Space: a satellite company planning a broadband communications constellation, Galaxy Space announced that it had raised a new big ticket round in November 2020. While the actual amount of funding was undisclosed, Galaxy Space declared that it had brought the total valuation of the company to 8 billion RMB (approx. 1.2 billion USD), making it seemingly the first space unicorn company of China.
  • Commsat: a satellite manufacturer and services provider, Commsat raised 270 million RMB (40 million USD) in May 2020.

The upcoming year will be especially important for many of these companies. Landspace and iSpace will both be launching for the first time their medium-lift methalox launch vehicles, the Zhuque-2 and the Hyperbola-2 respectively. In the case of the Hyperbola-2, the launch vehicle would perform vertical landing and would be fully reusable, a first in the history of Chinese space.

On the constellation side, Chinese NewSpace companies should also be picking up the pace. Commsat announced that year its Tangshan factory in Hebei will reach an annual production capacity of 100 satellites in 2021. Leobit has also made significant progress in upgrading its satellite manufacturing facilities in Wuhan. Leobit announced in September 2020 that it would be deploying a first batch of 12 satellites for the IoT constellation Xingyun next year. Guodian Gaoke will also complete its Tianqi narrowband constellation, based on their initial calendar. Head, Charming Globe, Galaxy Space, Spacety, among others, are also likely to deploy more satellites.

Ceres-1 successfully reached orbit for its inaugural launch in November 2020 (Credits: Galactic Energy)

8 – A Still Limited Involvement of Big Tech and Non-Space Sectors?

Companies like Amazon, Microsoft or Google play a significant role in space in the US by investing into space startups, or by directly creating dedicated companies. This is in stark contrast with China, where the role of tech companies and more generally non-space companies remains modest. While many VCs investing in Chinese space are tech focused investors (Sequoia Capital China, Shenzhen Capital, etc.), the big tech players such as Tencent or Alibaba have remained very quiet. Chinese space remains a tightly regulated sector, with strong uncertainty on how much room will be given to the private sector. This differs greatly from the tech environment where the BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) have thrived. Two exceptions should be noted however: Xiaomi, which is a heavy investor in space through its VC arm Shunwei Capital, and Lenovo Group through Legend Capital.

The New Infrastructures policy unveiled in March 2020 and the official high-level go-ahead it represents could change things. Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun in May 2020 called for the establishment of a space law incorporating commercial space activities, and the inclusion of commercial space companies in the upcoming 14th Five-Year Plan. Geely, one of the largest Chinese automobile companies, announced it would invest 2.27 billion RMB in building satellite manufacturing capabilities in the province of Zhejiang, and planned a LEO constellation to provide “low-latency connectivity and PNT services for Geely-manufactured autonomous vehicles”. In the recent pre-IPO round of funding of EO company Charming Globe, one of the main investors was iFlytek, an AI company focused on speech-recognition and natural language synthesis. 2021 could be the year of more big ticket involvement of non-space companies.

Lei Jun is arguably one of the biggest supporters of commercial space among Chinese Big Tech (Credits: KrAsia)

9 – International Cooperation: Ups and Downs

In 2020, the Trump administration engaged in a number of coercive economic measures against China, including sanctions against industries accused of being linked to the military. The impact of these measures on the Chinese space industry however has been to a large extent insignificant, as strict export controls already limited US companies from selling space hardware to Chinese clients. The impact could be more evident with other Western countries, which may have to choose to limit activities in China to have access to the US market. One such example is German laser communications hardware company Mynaric, which withdrew from a deal with China in July 2020 to prioritize its US activity, and due to strong opposition from the German government. Consequences could also extend to space exploration, as Washington grows increasingly suspicious of China’s lunar ambitions. China has successfully partnered with a number of European nations for its Chang’e missions. This includes working with ESA for tracking the Chang’e 5 spacecraft from Kourou, and collaborating with Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and France for the payloads on-board Chang’e 4 and the upcoming Chang’e 6. Further friction with the US may possibly impact this type of collaboration in space.

On a more positive note for China, relations with several other regions of the world have made progress. Ethiopia is a case in point, with the launch of the ET-SMART-RSS satellite on-board Long March 8 in December 2020, the second launch for Ethiopia in 12 months. China also signed an agreement to cooperate with Argentina for space exploration earlier this year, and already operates a deep space ground station in the western city of Neuquén since 2018. Other countries with increasing ties with China include Russia, Egypt, and the UAE.

10 – China’s Mysterious Spaceplane

China launched on September 4 an “experimental reusable spacecraft” (可重复使用试验航天器) on-board a Long March 2F. The spacecraft, likely a spaceplane able to perform horizontal landing, was reported to have returned to the ground successfully on September 6. No further official information was released, although much speculation has been going on among space enthusiasts on social media. Chinas is known to be developing space plane technology since 2007, when the first image of its Shenlong demonstrator was spotted. Since then, China has worked on a number of other spaceplane projects, ranging from civil, commercial projects to more secretive, military ones.

A secret 5 km airstrip in the Desert of Lop Nur, where China’s spaceplane may have landed (Credits: Planet)

This was the last blog post of China Aerospace Blog for 2020. If you enjoy reading these articles, please subscribe by entering your email in the subscribe section. If you would like to follow Chinese space news on a weekly basis, I invite you to check out our weekly podcast the Dongfang Hour, which I co-host with Blaine Curcio. A happy Covid-free 2021 to everyone!

Useful References

[1] Space sector faces a busy year ahead, People’s Daily, January 3 2020
[2] China bets on ‘new infrastructure’ to pull the economy out of post-Covid doldrums, Merics, 04 June 2020
[3] 18 picked for nation’s 3rd generation of astronauts, China Daily, October 01 2020
[4] Satellite internet buildup needed in 14th Five-Year Plan: Lei Jun, Global Times, May 21 2020
[5] China’s Geely Announces US$326 Million Satellite Investment For Mobility Revolution Connectivity, SpaceWatch Global, March 2020
[6] China plans to launch 12 IoT satellites next year, Xinhuanet, September 07 2020
[7] China’s Cislunar Space Ambitions Draw Scrutiny, National Defense, May 29 2020
[8] Hong Kong disaster relief base becomes unlikely target of Donald Trump’s national security law sanctions, South China Morning Post, July 21 2020
[9] Mynaric withdraws from China to serve security interests of its core markets, Mynaric, July 31 2020
[10] DORN, the French instrument of the Chang’e 6 lunar mission, Research Institute of Astrophysics and Planetology
[11] China and Argentina Resume Joint Venture for Space Exploration, Bloomberg, August 7 2020
[12] China, UAE eye space ties after launching Mars probes, Global Times, August 6 2020
[13] Egypt plans new big space projects for 2022, ITC & Telecom, September 15 2020
[14] Russia, China Consider Building Joint On-Orbit Assembling Space Telescope, Sputnik News, January 14 2020
[15] Russian space chief questions NASA plans, praises partnership with China, Ars Technica, July 13 2020
[16] New Chinese Space Plane Landed At Mysterious Air Base, Evidence Suggests, NPR, September 9 2020
[17] Nation’s Space Achievements Out of this World, China Daily, 28 December 2020
[18] China Focus: China tests 3D printing in space for first time, Xinhuanet, May 9 2020
[19] China’s space Industry in the time of Covid-19, Satellite Executive Briefing, June 2020
[20] Adaptive Optics Technology Assists Geosynchronous Orbit Coherent Optical Communication Experiment, Institute of Optics and Electronics, June 02 2020
[21] China makes major breakthrough in space propulsion technology, January 19 2020, ECNS
[22] Nation planning scientific station on the moon, ECNS, September 9 2020
[23] Future probes already mapped out by administration, ECNS, November 25 2020

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