Chinese Space Pioneer Achieves Orbit With Liquid Propellant Rocket

Space Pioneer is targeting the first launch of Tianlong-3 in 2024 and plans to ramp up to 12 launches per year from 2025.

Chinese Space Pioneer Achieves Orbit With Liquid Propellant Rocket

The first Chinese private launch company, Space Pioneer, has successfully launched a rocket using liquid propellant into orbit. A small remote sensing experiment satellite was launched into orbit by the Tianlong-2 (“Sky Dragon-2”) at 4:48 a.m. Eastern on April 2 from a transport erector launcher at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

The Ai Taikong Kexue (“love space science”) satellite was located by the U.S. Space Force in a 478 by 496-kilometre sun-synchronous orbit with a 97.4-degree inclination. Hunan Hangsheng Satellite Technology Co., Ltd. created the satellite.

With this launch, Space Pioneer—officially known as Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., Ltd.—becomes the first private company to launch into orbit. The three-stage Tianlong-2 has a payload capacity of 1,500 kilogrammes for a 500-kilometre-altitude sun-synchronous orbit and 2,000 kilogrammes for low Earth orbit (LEO) (SSO).

According to Space Pioneer, the rocket used coal-derived kerosene rather than fuel refined from oil. The coal-derived kerosene has recently been approved for use in launches by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), China’s state-owned primary space contractor.

The successful liquid propellant rocket launch represents a significant turning point in the growth of China’s commercial space sector, which began in late 2014 with a change in government policy. More than 20 launches of independently and commercially developed rockets are possible in 2023.

The introduction of new commercial launchers could help China participate in national projects like the Tiangong space station and the deployment of a national broadband megaconstellation while also increasing its launch capacity and flexibility.

Before launch of liquid propellant rocket, Tianlong-2 is believed to have used YF-102 gas generator engines with an 85 tonne thrust that CASC developed using 3D printing. The liquid propulsion academy at CASC verified this on April 3. The three YF-102 first stages were arranged in a triangle.

Tianlong-2 shares the 3.35-meter diameter of many Long March series rockets from CASC. In a press release, the company thanked CASC and its sibling defence giant, CASIC, as well as the State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), the government agency in charge of the space industry.

Announcing the recent “B+” and “Pre-C” strategic funding rounds on February 15, Space Pioneer. Since its founding in 2018, the company claims to have raised nearly 3 billion yuan ($438 million) in funding. The state is connected to a number of investors.

Major investors include Zhejiang University Lianchuang, CCB International, the China Construction Bank Corporation, CITIC Construction, the engineering and construction division of the Chinese state-owned CITIC Group, and the China International Capital Corporation (CICC), a partially state-owned investment vehicle.

The Yangtze River city of Zhangjiagang in Jiangsu province has also sponsored and invested in the company. The city is home to Space Pioneer’s rocket manufacturing facilities, and the Tianlong-2 launch also used the “Zhangjiagang” launch code.

The two most recent rounds of funding will be used to develop the larger Tianlong-3 launcher and its rocket engines, build the necessary launch facilities, and hire new personnel. The staged-combustion kerolox engines are being developed by Space Pioneer, the company claims. The Tianlong-3 rocket will have two stages and a reusable first stage.

According to a press release from Space Pioneer, the rocket can launch up to 60 satellites per launch and has a 15-ton payload capacity for China’s Guowang LEO communications megaconstellation. According to current understanding, the project’s primary launcher is CASC’s Long March 5B.

Space Pioneer is targeting the first launch of Tianlong-3 in 2024 and plans to ramp up to 12 launches per year from 2025. It initially started out developing engines burning green monopropellant, but changed directions and scrapped the development of the Tianlong-1 rocket.

Rocket startups including iSpace, Galactic Energy, OneSpace, and Landspace have attempted light-lift, solid rocket launches, with iSpace and Galactic Energy proving successful with at least one launch.

All Chinese commercial firms are developing liquid propellant rockets designed for eventual reusability, with Landspace, Orienspace, and Rocket Pi competing in this arena. Landspace recently completed the final assembly of its second Zhuque-2 methane-LOX rocket, which will seek to improve on the first launch in December.

Spinoffs from giant state-owned enterprises such as CASC (China Rocket), CASIC (Expace), and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS Space) have also succeeded with solid orbital launches.

Space Pioneer and another recently emerging company, Orienspace, are moving directly towards medium-lift and heavier classes of launchers, while earlier-established Chinese commercial firms looked to first develop lighter solid and liquid propellant launchers.

While China has more recently indicated that private firms can participate in launching both the national “satellite internet” project and sending cargo to the Tiangong space station, these trends seem to reflect early entrants initially looking to launch small satellites for private customers, the apparent market.