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#SpaceWatchGL Column: Dongfang Hour China Aerospace News Roundup 30 August – 5 September 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 30 August – 5 September 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 30 August – 5 September 2021.

1) A Commercial Launch Company from Taiwan?

 Jean’s Take

For this first piece of news, let’s stray away from mainland China and discuss a little bit a commercial rocket company from Taiwan. TiSpace, short for Taiwan Innovative Space ( 台灣晉陞太空股份有限公司) was founded in May 2016, (or May of Year 105, as the Taiwanese also still use the Republican calendar!), and is headquartered in the city of Chunan, just south of Hsinchu, one of Taiwan’s most dynamic science and technology hubs.

The company received the authorization from Australian authorities over the past week to conduct a suborbital launch of the Hapith I rocket from the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in southern Australia. This will be a significant step for the company, which has been postponing its Hapith I launches for almost two years now, for various reasons:

  • Covid for one had delayed launches that were initially planned for February 2020
  • The initial launch site was also supposed to be in Taitung, on the Eastern coast of Taiwan, but due to friction with local aborigines and environmental concerns, launch directly from Taiwan was finally temporarily ruled out, and Australia was selected instead.

One interesting thing perhaps to highlight about TiSpace, beyond being just yet another commercial small-lift launch company, is that they are using specific propulsion technology: hybrid propulsion.
In the space industry we are used to talking about solid fueled rockets (where the oxidizer and fuel are solid, and pre-mixed) and liquid-fueled rockets where the oxidizer and fuel are liquid (typically liquid oxygen combined with KP1, methane, hydrogen; or some hypergolic mixes as well).

With hybrid propulsion, we are talking about using a liquid oxidizer (Nitrous Oxide in the case of Tispace) and a solid fuel (“rubber”-based propellant for TiSPACE).

Hybrid propulsion engines have existed and been explored at an R&D level for a while, it has been seldom used on actual commercial launch vehicles.
It does has disadvantages (notably in terms of managing the combustion), but it can sometimes be seen as having the best of both worlds between solid and liquid:

  • It is much more simple in terms of piping systems compared to liquid-fueled rockets where you have two different circuits, one or more turbopumps, etc.
    On the contrary in the case of hybrid propulsion, you only have one liquid propellant to manage (N20), and in the case of TiSpace Leilien-1 engines, they are pressure-fed systems, so much simpler than turbopumps.
  • You are able to shut-off and control the thrust of the engine, as opposed to solid fueled rockets which basically burn up to the end once ignited.
  • It is also much safer than solid rockets, which are explosive due to the premixed propellants. In a hybrid rocket, oxidizer and fuel are stored separately, meaning that you have no chance of them reacting together. This makes transportation and handling the rocket much easier.

TiSPACE plans to use its hybrid propulsion technology in the Leilien-1 engines, which equip the Hapith I 2-stage suborbital rocket and the Hapith V 3-stage orbital rocket.

The Hapith V rocket is expendable, which probably makes sense for a small hybrid rocket considering that the rocket is much cheaper to produce (due to little machinery in hybrid propulsion) compared to liquid fueled rockets. It will be able to put 390 kg into LEO.

The CEO Chen Yen-Sen, an ex-Taiwanese space agency rocket scientist who also worked previously at NASA, mentioned in 2019 that they aimed for a launch cost of 6-7 million USD, which would be around 15k+ USD/kg. Not bad for a small rocket, but I’m not sure this will be enough considering that competition will be stiff and that there is little internal demand from Taiwan for launch.
Chen nevertheless mentions that the company planned to bring the price down further thanks to the simplicity of the rocket and rocket engine architecture, and likely also due to economies of scale as production ramps up.

Overall, I’m very excited to see some commercial space activity build up in Taiwan, which is a relatively new player in the space sector. We should see the suborbital launch of the Hapith I rocket take place from Australia before the end of the year.

Blaine’s Take

Interesting developments over in Taiwan, had never heard of the Republican calendar. A couple of points to add about the Taiwanese space sector and economy more generally. To Jean’s earlier point, Taiwan is a relatively new player in the space sector, in particular commercial space. That being said, Taiwan has several distinct advantages that will likely help them carve out a niche in the rapidly-expanding global commercial space sector.

Chief among them, Taiwan is the world leader in semiconductor manufacturing, an area becoming increasingly critical for not just commercial space, but basically all industries. Local powerhouse TSMC is one of the world’s most valuable companies, and the most sophisticated semiconductor manufacturer in the world, and there are dozens of other smaller, highly advanced, specialized semiconductor manufacturers around the island.

In an interview from June of this year, Acting Director General of Taiwan’s National Space Organization Yu Shiann-Jeng (余憲政) noted that around a dozen Taiwanese companies are already providing components and ground-based equipment for SpaceX. Yu, as well as Minister of Science and Technology Wu Tsung-Tsong (吳政忠), both noted that Taiwan has existing capabilities that will make them competitive at building LEO satellite components, which they see as a major opportunity, one that “Taiwan definitely cannot afford to miss”, according to Wu.

The recent space activity in Taiwan has been fueled by the Space Development Promotion Act (太空發展法), passed in May 2021. The act covers four areas, namely 1) setting principles of development that are aligned with international space laws, 2) regulating space-based activities to ensure safety, 3) establishing rocket launch sites, and 4) promoting industrial development. Overall, the Taiwanese space sector remains very small, but they clearly have some unique competencies which are now being supported by more coherent government policies towards space. Moving forward, expect to see the island playing an interesting role in the sector given its technological capabilities, and its economic relationship with both the west and Mainland China.

(some background on CEO Chen Yen-Sen)

(some additional background info: other commercial startups working on hybrid propulsion: HyImpulse, HyPrSpace, bluShift Aerospace, Gilmour Space, …)

2) China may be developing an indigenous version of Ingenuity

Jean’s Take

Is China developing its own version of Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter that NASA put on Mars a couple of months ago as part of the Mars 2020 mission?

China’s National Space Sciences Center (NSSC) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences revealed earlier this week that on August 20, 3 projects passed an acceptance test review, among which was one project that could be roughly translated into “Mars surface patroller & remote sensing key technology study” (火星地表巡飞光谱探测关键技术研究). This latter project, led by Pr. Bian Chunjiang of the NSSC’s Key Laboratory of Electronics and Information Technology for Space Systems (中国科学院复杂航天系统电子信息技术重点实验室), includes a Mars UAV prototype as well as its remote sensing payload.

Now I think the most interesting thing to note here is that this UAV seems to have gone for a similar lift generating mechanism as NASA’s Ingenuity, namely 2 contra-rotating rotors, and even the rest looks quite a bit similar.
This technical solution makes sense and is especially fitting for Mars due to its very thin atmosphere (5% of the atm on Earth), meaning that rotors have to be larger for a given rotation speed to generate the same amount of lift, which is not great when you have larger rotors because the tip of the blade can become supersonic (which is not a good thing).

This is where contra-rotating rotors shine as they have the advantage of producing higher lift for a given rotor diameter, and also enable more compact designs → everything you’re looking for for a Mars helicopter.

On a side note, there were many remarks on social media of NSSC copying NASA’s concept. My personal opinion on this on is that that’s a bit unfair:

  • First of all, contra-rotating rotors as mentioned is an optimal technical solution for Mars. While NASA did it first and demonstrated the viability of the solution (and that’s fantastic), I don’t think that means China shouldn’t follow suit for a remote sensing drone. Henry Ford put 4 wheels on his Model T automobile, that doesn’t mean other car manufacturers necessarily had to go for a different solution.
  • A second point is that contra-rotating rotors is a well-established and understood technology that has been around for a while: the Russians are notably a fan of the solution, using it for example in their Tupolev Tu-95 bombers and Kamov Ka-50 attack helicopters. Many industrial drones also use this technology (example: ECA IT180-120)
  • Finally, the Chinese have been known to be working on this technology for quite some time. Space journalist Andrew Jones wrote in an article recently that the Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering, Aerospace DFH in Shenzhen, Beihang University, and the Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology have been studying aerial concept architectures for Mars exploration.
    And going through Baidu search with “Mars UAV”, you land on papers from various Chinese aerospace research institutes (like HIT or NUAA) that date back 5 to 10 years ago.

So in a nutshell, the US is undeniably the pioneering space faring country here, but the Chinese are also doing a very respectable job as well, and it is likely that we’ll see an increasing number of space exploration UAVs in the near future.

3) Article on Li Shufu and Geely

Blaine’s Take

This week, Reuters published an excellent deep-dive on Li Shufu, Chairman of Zhejiang Geely Holdings Group. Li and Geely are arguably the closest thing that China has to Elon Musk and Tesla, and their story is nearly as impressive and interesting as Musk’s.

A short review: Geely is a leading Chinese automaker that owns, among others, Volvo, Proton, Lotus, and a large stake in Daimler. In recent years, Chairman Li has been pushing to transform the company from an auto manufacturer to an “autonomous mobility service provider”, ushering in a world of self-driving cars enabled by, among other things, LEO satellites that provide enhanced location accuracy and low-latency communications. The company’s space efforts are concentrated in Guangzhou under the company 时空探索 / Shikong Tansuo, which we discussed in more detail on the Dongfang Hour Episode 27.

The article this week touched on Geely’s space ambitions, but also provided a deeper dive into the company’s early days. Geely was created in the late 1990s, when Chairman Li convinced a local party leader that it was very simple to manufacture cars, referring to them as “two sofas on four wheels”, and subsequently acquired the necessary license to produce cars. At the time, Li made it clear to the official that the venture would cost the state nothing, asking him to “at least give me a chance to fail” (great line).

Throughout the 2000s, Geely became more established in China, eventually becoming one of its leading commercial automakers. At the dawn of the 2010s, the company began to expand its global presence, initially through the purchase of Volvo. In a great example of China’s overlapping stakeholders and the way they interact with one another, the purchase of Volvo was paid for primarily through low-interest loans provided by the cities of Chengdu and Daqing, as well as the Jiading District of Shanghai. Later, Volvo would build factories in both Chengdu and Daqing, and an R&D center in Jiading, providing a boost to their local economies, and maybe in a way, “rewarding” them for the faith they had in Geely. Probably, if Geely went back to these cities asking for more low-interest loans, they would not be disappointed.

As we have moved into the 2010s, and as topics such as self-driving cars have become increasingly important, Geely has positioned itself as a leader in what could be called “self-driving car consortia”. The company has attempted to cultivate a “circle of friends”– OEMs from different countries that can cooperate with Geely and share some of the massive costs of developing technologies such as autonomous vehicles. The company built a >9% stake in Daimler for this very purpose–namely cooperating with the Germans to develop autonomous vehicles, and Li has referred to the need for “smarter and more collaborative investments for OEMs”. Other automakers, and the German government, have been skeptical, but as this week’s article points out, the competition in this case is Tesla, which has a market capitalization of US$725B, larger than all other automakers combined, and so it may be helpful for the other automakers to cooperate rather than compete with one another.

After revealing their stake in Daimler in early 2017, Geely allegedly sent a delegation to Germany to discuss their plans for collaboration, at which time Li brought up Geely’s LEO satellite idea. While still in very early stages, Geely has plans to manufacture and launch a constellation of hundreds of LEO satellites. The company has thus far been a little bit scattered with their space plans, having built a satellite factory in Taizhou, Zhejiang, another factory in Shandong Province, and the aforementioned Shikong Tansuo HQ in Nansha, Guangzhou.

That being said, the company has also shown some financial heft, having acquired China’s first commercial satellite manufacturer, Space-OK, in a deal that also saw Geely acquire technology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, from which Space-OK was spun out. Li and Geely have also shown an ability to raise funds from city/provincial governments for big, ambitious projects, and a subsequent ability to deliver on the project’s promises. Having a space program might be Li’s most ambitious plan yet, but if history is any indicator, Geely and Li may well have the best chance of any company in China of becoming a “Chinese Tesla/Elon Musk”.

Jean’s Take

The story of Li Shufu and Geely is really a fascinating one, at the intersection of the automobile industry, AI, and LEO constellations. A potential Chinese Elon Musk indeed.

Some updates on my side on the recent progress of Geely and their space subsidiary Geespace:

This has been another episode of the Dongfang Hour China Space News Roundup, this for the week of the 30 Aug. -5 September, 2021. For a bunch more insights on other current pieces of Chinese space industry news, check out the Dongfang Hour Newsletter at newsletter.dongfanghour.com

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Thank you for watching, and see you next week!

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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