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#SpaceWatchGL Column: Dongfang Hour China Aerospace News Roundup 19 April – 25 April 2021

by Blaine Curcio and Jean Deville

As part of the partnership between SpaceWatch.Global and Orbital Gateway Consulting we have been granted permission to publish selected articles and texts. We are pleased to present “Dongfang Hour China Aerospace News Roundup 19 April – 25 April 2021”.

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Dongfang Hour China Aero/Space News Roundup! A special shout-out to our friends at GoTaikonauts!, and at SpaceWatch.Global, both excellent sources of space industry news. In particular, we suggest checking out GoTaikonauts! long-form China reporting, as well as the Space Cafe series from SpaceWatch.Global. Without further ado, the news update from the week of 19 April – 25 April 2021.

1) The 6th China Space Day took place in Nanjing on Saturday, April 24

 Jean’s Take

Happy China Space Day everyone! This Saturday, China kicked off its 6th China Space Day, an annual celebration promoting China’s space heritage and future space programs. China Space Day is not actually one event, but actually hundreds of events all around the country, with many institutes, universities, and schools organizing space outreach events. This includes conferences, presentations, exhibitions, etc. It’s clear that this event is meant to foster curiosity from the young generations towards space sciences and China’s space achievements: with drawing contests, artistic performances etc.

It’s also worth noting that among all the space events taking place in China, there is one big official event where all the space industry creme-de-la-creme get together, and which last two days. Every year CSD takes place in a different city, and this year it took place in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province. Speeches were delivered by Zhang Kejian (director of the CNSA), Wu Zhenglong (governor or Jiangsu), Han Liming (Secretary of the Nanjing Communist Party). There were also award distribution ceremonies, presentations on the space industry, panels, exhibitions, videos on China’s space achievements …

You can perceive the pride that the Chinese have for their space achievements, and a lot of the official materials tend to instil this feeling of pride. A look at the official China Space Day clip released by the CNSA is quite suggestive of this: (runs the video).

There would be quite a bit to unpack here, just a couple of points I wanted to note in this video:

  • First of all, it highlights all of the Chinese recent achievements in the past year: completing the Beidou constellation, launching China’s Next Generation Crewed Vehicle, Chang’e 5 sample return, the ongoing Tianwen-1 mars mission, the maiden launch of Long March 8, … (and this is when you realize how dynamic Chinese space actually is).
  • It also highlights future missions to take place in the next 5 years: the so-called 4th phase of CLEP (CE6-8 missions), the asteroid sample return mission, and the heliosphere probes.
  • Last but not least: the message at the end saying: self-reliance, home-grown innovation (自力更生,自主创新), which is certainly a push for innovation, but also highlights once again how decoupled the Chinese space industry is and how it is wary of relying too heavily on any non-Chinese 3rd party.

Blaine’s Take

Definitely, a big event that seems to be getting bigger every year. Every year during China Space Day, it takes me back to my first time attending the event, in April 2018 at the Harbin Institute of Technology. At the time, I recall seeing Landspace CEO Roger Zhang give a speech to a totally standing-room only crowd in a very dumpy auditorium in some obscure academic building of the HIT. How times have changed for China’s commercial space sector.

Takeaways this year:

  • Definitely agree that we’ve seen more outreach. Of note, the China Space Day poster was much simpler than in year’s past, showing a seemingly father-daughter combination in some green rolling hills with a telescope, looking up at a sky dominated by a Chinese Space Station, Long March-5, and other missions. In the rolling hills towards the sunset, you can see several observatories. In short, it’s a poster focused on space captivating a very average-looking (if not also very yuppie-looking) father-daughter. On the outreach front, even Baidu’s search results for China Space Day got a big upgrade from last year.
  • Finally, we saw an announcement of the name of China’s Mars rover, which is currently on-board the Tianwen-1 spacecraft in orbit around Mars, and which is supposed to land sometime in May. Among the ten names that were shortlisted by Chinese netizens, the name Zhurong (祝融) was officially announced by Wu Yanhua, the deputy director of CNSA. Zhurong is a god of fire in Chinese mythology. Good stuff, though I still prefer Qilin or Zhuimeng.

2) ChinaSat Made Some Big Statements about China’s Constellation Plans

Blaine’s Take

ChinaSat President Ge Yujin made some very interesting comments at an annual shareholders meeting for the company, as reported by Satellite World (卫星界) on Monday. The most interesting line was a reply to a question about Hongyan, namely a reporter pointing out that Hongyan was originally planned for completion in 2020, and asking for a status update.

Mr. Ge replied by pointing out that Hongyan was originally launched in 2018, and that it has since, along with CASIC’s Hongyun, come under the national constellation system plan, with Hongyan understood to be undergoing major changes. (“您好,感谢您的提问。“鸿雁”全球卫星星座通信系统首发星确第公司下属子公司深圳东方红承研并在2018年成功发射。但据了解,包括航天科技集团的“鸿雁”系统、航天科工集团的“虹云”系统在内的相关星座建设计划,国家相关部门正在进行统筹规划,我们理解“鸿雁”星座的原计划将出现重大变化”).

What makes this interesting? For starters, the mention of Hongyan and Hongyun in the same sentence under the idea of reorganization of national constellation plans. As we most recently speculated on Dongfang Hour Episode 27, China’s LEO broadband ambitions are likely to consolidate the Hongyan and Hongyun constellations into one, likely a Guowang constellation discussed on DFHour Episode 1, while leaving Xingyun to develop independently as a sort of Chinese Iridium. Ge’s statements this week would seem to support such an idea.

Also noteworthy is the fact that this is ChinaSat’s President. ChinaSat has responsibility for Hongyan/broadband in China to the extent that they are currently the main satellite operator, however, Hongyan (or GW) is ultimately a larger project by far than ChinaSat–that is, it’s basically a CASC-level project. The fact that ChinaSat discussed these constellation plans is significant, but….I’ll be more likely to totally believe them when I see these words uttered by someone from CASC.

Final point: the mention of CASIC’s Hongyun is an interesting one. CASIC and CASC do not get along very well, though as we noted in last week’s episode, CASIC’s newish Chairman, Yuan Jie, is a former CASC executive. It’s not clear how this will shake out, but it seems CASIC may need to be satisfied if they get a mandate for narrowband/Xingyun constellation, and lose out on broadband to CASC.

Jean’s Take

Definitely agree that it’s interesting news to see a high ranking space official (China Satcom president), typically someone who would be aware of the details of backdoor discussions, bring up the topic, and it does confirm to some extent the speculation on the consolidation.

I definitely agree also that there is a question mark on the role that China Satcom will play. As China’s main satellite operator, it would seem at first glance that it would have a leading role with China’s future GW broadband constellation, but speculation on the creation of a separate dedicated SoE to operate GW last year along with the leadership of this new SoE suggests that China Satcom may have a much more limited role in China’s future satellite internet infrastructure.

And speaking of China’s satellite internet infrastructure…

3) Spacety and Intane Optics complete China’s first private satellite-ground laser comms experiment

Jean’s Take

Two Chinese private companies, Spacety (a satellite manufacturer) and Intane Optics (optics subsystem manufacturer) announced in a press release on April 4th that they had achieved China’s first private laser satellite-ground comms.

As usual before digging into this piece of news, some background:

  • Spacety is one of the fast-moving private Chinese satellite manufacturers, based in Changsha, and which has sent many cubesats and smallsats into orbit (20-ish in early 2021) since it was founded in 2016.
  • Intane Optics on the other hand is a CAS spin-off founded in 2003 and based in Nanjing. They are a manufacturer of optical instruments (historically astronomy) but have recently diversified in laser comms.

Back to the news, this satellite-ground laser comms experiment was done with the Beihangsat-1, a Spacety cubesat launched in November 2020 which was essentially a test satellite for space-based ADS-B (air traffic control), but it also carried the SG10-1 optical payload manufactured by Intane. The optical ground station was also provided by Intane, based in Nanjing Chaoyang.

Based on that, Intane and Spacety have started a batch of laser comms tests, starting in December 2020, and reach approximately 50 by early April. According to the press release, these experiments were conducted under different meteorology conditions, and aimed “evaluating beam tracking performance, analyzing the impact of atmospheric turbulence on communications, and testing downlinking of remote sensing data”.

This is significant news for several reasons. First of all, while this is not China’s first laser satellite-ground comms experiment (although there’s only been a handful so far), all previous experiments were led by state-owned players, notably universities and research institutes. So this experiment from Spacety/Intane Optics represents the first private companies to try this technology, showing a first step into the commercialization of a technology that’s still generally considered by many as early stage.

I think there is also a technology feat in what was achieved: laser comms is no easy task. There is first of all the high precision capturing of the satellite by the telescope mount, the in-orbit optical module also has to point the laser accurately at the ground; and ultimately there is the challenge posed by the atmosphere, by clouds, and by background light. So good on Spacety and Intane Optics.

Last point, The press release mentions China’s recent Satellite Internet Infrastructure policy, relating to our previous point. It will be interesting to see if laser comms have a role to play in the future satellite internet infrastructure. Likely yes, as China’s 14th FYP has suggested establishing a network of quantum satellites over the next 5-10 years.

Blaine’s Take

One point to add–this test involved an observatory in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. I would note that with China Space Day (Nanjing), the Spacety/Intane news, and things like DBA and Galaxy Space in Nantong, Jiangsu is a trending topic lately in the space sector. Trending topic that it is, the last piece of news this week also comes from Jiangsu, with Tianbing Aerospace announcing an intelligent rocket manufacturing base in Suzhou.

4) Tianbing Aerospace Announces an Intelligent Rocket Manufacturing Base in Suzhou

Blaine’s Take

Tianbing Aerospace, aka Space Pioneer, held a signing ceremony this week for an “Intelligent Rocket Manufacturing Base” in Zhangjiagang, Suzhou. The manufacturing base includes a total investment of RMB 4B, and aims at a capacity of 30 liquid rockets and 300 engines per year, with an estimated completion date of 2022. A few other interesting nuggets of info from the article:

  • Tianbing Aerospace plans to launch its first Tianlong-1 liquid carrier rocket by the end of 2021, which, according to the exhibition shown at the signing ceremony, would make Tianbing the first medium-sized liquid-fueled rocket in China.
  • Tianbing also claims to have pre-sold 10 rockets so far, and plans to begin batch manufacturing its rockets by next year.
  • The company plans to IPO before the end of 2023.
  • Not mentioned in the article, but Tianbing has been an aggressive fundraiser recently, having completed 3 rounds of funding in 2020. It appears they did not raise any money this week/during the signing of the intelligent industrial base.

Overall, an interesting update from one of China’s later-founded launch companies. Tianbing Aerospace has also been one of the more “government-focused” commercial launch companies, at least when considering its funding sources (mostly local/provincial government funds) and also its level of openness (the company has flown largely under the radar until recently). It is also worth noting that in addition to the 8 or so commercial rocket industrial bases that we listed on a recent episode of the Dongfang Hour, we now have another one, this time in Suzhou.

Jean’s Take

Tianbing is an interesting Chinese rocket company to bring up. As mentioned, it is one of the second generation Chinese rocket companies, founded as late as 2019, by Kang Yonglai, the current CEO and the former CTO of Landspace.

It is also fascinating from a technological point of view. It takes a novel approach using what it calls “HCP green propulsion” for its Tianhuo engines (which power the Tianlong rocket mentioned by Blaine). What this is is actually a mixed monopropellant. A monopropellant basically is a chemical component that reacts with itself, for example through decomposition, and generally in a highly exothermic reaction that produces thrust.

This is an amazing property because you don’t have to store two different kinds of fuels, you only need a single tank (–> less weight), you don’t have the issues of different fluid densities, which can be a headache for the turbopump systems. It’s also storable, so you don’t need to fuel the rocket just before launch. Few parts also mean higher reliability. On paper, it’s amazing, and if used as the propellant for the main stage engine it would be a world-first, I believe other monopropellants so far, notably hydrazine, have only been used for upper stages or orbital maneuver propulsion systems.

The so-called HCP would also be an amazing replacement for hydrazine: it should have a higher specific impulse, and more importantly, it does not have the strong toxicity of hydrazine (and which is probably why it is called a “green propellant”).

Now I have also heard some scepticism on Tianbing, and notably its timeline: this type of monopropellant is a new technology, it is not entirely well understood, and would mean designing turbopumps, ignition or catalytic systems, combustion chambers, etc without the decades of experience that the industry currently has with fuels like kerosene. So I have doubts about seeing the launch of a Tianlong-1 rocket in 2021, relying on HCP for its main propulsion systems.

But hey, Tianbing seems to be raising money, investors must be confident; and we do see videos showing what looks like successful hot fire engine tests of the 30t thrust Tianhuo-3 engine. So we may be positively surprised by Tianbing.

This has been another episode of the Dongfang Hour China Aero/Space News Roundup. If you’ve made it this far, we thank you for your kind attention, and look forward to seeing you next time! Until then, don’t forget to follow us on YouTube, Twitter, or LinkedIn, or your local podcast source. 

Blaine Curcio has spent the past 10 years at the intersection of China and the space sector. Blaine has spent most of the past decade in China, including Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Beijing, working as a consultant and analyst covering the space/satcom sector for companies including Euroconsult and Orbital Gateway Consulting. When not talking about China space, Blaine can be found reading about economics/finance, exploring cities, and taking photos.

Jean Deville is a graduate from ISAE, where he studied aerospace engineering and specialized in fluid dynamics. A long-time aerospace enthusiast and China watcher, Jean was previously based in Toulouse and Shenzhen, and is currently working in the aviation industry between Paris and Shanghai. He also writes on a regular basis in the China Aerospace Blog. Hobbies include hiking, astrophotography, plane spotting, as well as a soft spot for Hakka food and (some) Ningxia wines.

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