Surging global demand for commercial satellite launches is a boon for both state-backed and private players. Countries and organizations incapable of sending their own satellites into space are looking to outsource their programs to “space couriers,” such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s Space X, two frontrunners in rocket technology commercialization.
With those US firms currently raking it in, Beijing’s state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) also fancies a piece of the action.
As ever, the Chinese approach is to first come up with a copycat or knockoff version of an existing product or solution, then to spend time improving it until it can be used to undercut competitors and grab a stranglehold on the market. This is what is now happening in commercial satellite launches.
While Blue Origin and Space X been bragging about their reusable rockets and launch vehicles that can send objects into space at a massively reduced cost, the CASC has been quietly developing its own technology. Its nimble, budget rocket series, Kuaizhou, complements its Long March series.
The most powerful heavy-lift Long March rocket, Type Five, has a maximum payload capacity of 25,000 kilograms (roughly 55,000 lb) to low Earth orbit. According to a chief CASC engineer interviewed by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, the Kuaizhou is, rather, intended for miniaturized satellites weighing 300kg or less. It has a lightweight build and is more fuel-efficient.
The series’ first commercial launch was conducted on January 9 of this year, when a single Kuaizhou 1A carried three small satellites into a polar orbit.
One feature that may give Kuaizhou’s competitors a good run for their money is that the Chinese rockets can be launched virtually anywhere, even from the roadside.
“Our rockets can be launched on a mobile platform, or even mounted on ordinary trucks, and they require just a small pitch of hard ground surface like a basketball court or several parking lots,” said the engineer.
The timespan from signing a contract to launch can be as short as eight months, thanks to prefabricated modules for swift assembly.
The Kuaizhou is possibly based on Chinese ballistic missile technology, which uses road-mobile carriers for transport to the launch site.
It’s also reported that a satellite can be installed on a Kuaizhou rocket and stored in a maintenance facility. Once required, it can be deployed to a secure location by a transporter-erector-launcher vehicle and launched in a matter of hours.
The new variant of the series, Kuaizhou 11 – which has a much larger payload of 1,500 kg to near-earth orbit and sun-synchronous orbit – is slated to be operational by next year.
The CASC expects 62 commercial launches in the next five years.
“Foreign clients told us that they are interested in Kuaizhou rockets’ strong capabilities and competitive prices,” Zhang Di, who is vice president of the CASC Fourth Academy, told China Daily.
“The Kuaizhou models are specifically designed for launches of small satellites. They are capable of lifting four to six satellites to multiple orbits in a single flight and require a short period of time for pre-launch preparations, and fewer than 10 operators.”