China NewSpace No. 3: Satellites, Explosions, and Sanctions

Oh my

Welcome back to China NewSpace, your weekly look into the Chinese private space industry. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

People the world over might be locked down, but space news continues apace. Last Friday was China’s Aerospace Day, so lots of space-related announcements and opening ceremonies were held, as well as the US tightening export controls to China (more in the news roundup below).

As we covered in the previous issue, the Chinese government had a contest to decide on the official poster for China’s Aerospace Day. Well, they finally picked one, and it’s this beauty by a designer named Li Jie. Not as epic as last year’s, but I like the minimalism.

Translation

This week’s translation comes to us from Sina Tech, and it’s an interview with Zhao Lei, the CEO of SatelliteHerd, a company that provides TT&C services to satellites.


Industry Notes

TT&C stands for Telemetry, Tracking, and Control. It’s basically the systems we use to keep tabs on and operate satellites from the ground.


Interview Highlights:

  • Zhao Lei is (surprise, surprise) bullish on his own company

“SatelliteHerd is the company with the most ground station resources among all commercial satellite companies, it has served the most satellites, it has the largest market share, it’s raising money the fastest, and has the largest amount of financing. In November 2019, we completed over RMB 100 million in Series A financing, laying a solid foundation for rapid development in 2020. I believe we will continue to maintain our leading position in the industry.”

  • SatelliteHerd has global ambitions

“2020 is an important year for the internationalization of SatelliteHerd; we need to build a large number of satellite ground stations abroad. …[T]he products we plan to promote on the international market include: first, providing satellite TT&C services for global commercial satellites, …second, relying on our overseas ground station network resources to help satellite remote sensing enterprises with their remote sensing applications, …and third, providing local satellite application solutions, for which our advantage is that we can use TT&C to easily obtain and integrate all kinds of satellite data and services.”

Zhao Lei is optimistic about Chinese space companies competing internationally and thinks that opportunities for Chinese companies exist in “low-orbit mobile communications, Beidou navigation, and satellite remote sensing applications in countries along the Belt and Road.”

  • The company claims not to have been significantly affected by coronavirus

“The sudden outbreak did bring some difficulties to the company's normal operations, but the company formulated a comprehensive response plan for the outbreak, so it the impact on the company's operations was not large.”

You can read the full interview here.


Interesting Links: rockets go boom

I usually prefer to focus on the bright side, but it can’t be ignored that China has had a string of launch failures lately. Most of the most recent cases are on the state-owned side, but it could cast doubt on the reliability of China’s aerospace industry more broadly.

  1. Long March 3B carrying commercial Indonesian satellite fails (Caleb Henry: SpaceNews)

  2. The Quiet, Public Failure Of China’s New Long March Rocket (Andrew Jones: supchina)

One of the most recent examples was a Long March 3B rocket that was lost when its third stage malfunctioned, causing debris to light up the sky over Guam. It had been carrying Nusantara-2, a communications satellite owned by a joint venture between two Indonesian firms.

The rocket and the satellite were built by two different subsidiaries of the state-owned enterprise CASC, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) built the satellite, while China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) was responsible for the rocket. As Caleb Henry points out, this is a setback for Chinese firms’ attempts to export satellite services overseas. This comes not long after the loss of a Long March 7A in March.

  1. 【中國航天】火箭發射接連失利暴露大問題 習近平重要節點發聲 (Chu Wen: HK01)

I started thinking more about these failures when I saw an article on the Hong Kong news site HK01 by Chu Wen. The article points out that China’s launch success rate is lagging behind other space powers with only a 92.56% rate of success since 2016, while during the same period the success rates for other space programs were:

  • US 99%

  • Russia 96.25%

  • India 96%

  • Europe 95.45%

  • Japan 95%

Chu Wen reports that while some blame the US for preventing Chinese state-owned firms from accessing advanced computer chips, but that a more serious problem is a lack of morale at the SOE aerospace firms caused by low pay and poor treatment.

The HK01 article had mentioned the case of Zhang Xiaoping from 2018, a rocket scientist who had left his job at a state-owned enterprise to work for private rocket company LandSpace for more pay and somehow then started a public controversy over the state of the government aerospace workforce. I found a good primer on the subject in this SCMP article:

  1. How a Chinese rocket scientist’s resignation started a nation talking about its poorly paid talents (Laurie Chen: SCMP)

I think it’s important at this point to say that we don’t really know why these rockets have malfunctioned and whether or not there is some deeper cause. I think it’s just as likely that there were some unconnected poor design decisions as it is that the whole SOE aerospace workforce is disgruntled, but it is a narrative out there in the Chinese media so worth paying attention to.


News Roundup

April 22:          LandSpace’s Tianque (TQ-11), a 10-ton liquid oxygen methane engine, passed its longest test so far, running for 1500 seconds (link in Chinese)

April 24:          On Aerospace Day, the name and logo of China’s mission to land a rover on Mars were announced (Tianwen-1). It’s named after this ancient poem by Qu Yuan.

April 24:          Car maker Geely announced that it was going to launch two satellites in the second half of 2020 which will provide positioning information for its AI platform OmniCloud

April 24:          A new commercial aerospace innovation park began construction in Zhongguancun, a high-tech area in the Haidian District of Beijing (link in Chinese)

April 24:          A groundbreaking ceremony (link in Chinese) was held for a space port in the city of Haiyang in Shandong Province

April 27:          Reports surfaced that the US is tightening export controls of certain technologies to China, possibly including aerospace components

April 28:          The details of the new US Commerce Department rules were published on Tuesday


Until next time

My name is Cory Fitz and I write the China NewSpace newsletter. To better understand China’s young and rapidly growing private space industry, China NewSpace will bring you translations of topical Chinese-language blog posts, articles, etc., as well as a roundup of interesting links and relevant news.

If you have any comments for me, feel free to contact me at chinanewspace@gmail.com

You can also find me on Twitter at @cory_fitz