Witnessing the emergence of private space companies, new launch vehicles, and miniature satellites that have profoundly changed space activities in the United States, China needed to act. The government opened its space industry to private capital in 2014.
Hundreds of commercial companies, many with close ties to traditional space and defense enterprises, have now sprung up. They’re developing new rockets, building remote sensing and communications satellites, and aiming to fill gaps in ground station and space data services.
One of the first private space companies in China was Spacety, a small satellite maker with offices in Beijing and Changsha, in central China. Its founders were in part inspired by the activities of SpaceX and Planet. They left their jobs at institutes under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), a state-owned entity with a measure of space-related activities, to establish Spacety in January 2016.
They did not, like many other satellite startups, start with plans to create their own constellations. Instead, Spacety offers a complete range of services for small satellites—including manufacturing, payload hosting, launch, and on-orbit operating. Such services allow Spacety’s clients to rapidly reach orbit so they can provide their own services, test new technologies, or carry out experiments.
The Spacety Xiaoxiang-1-04 CubeSat.Photo: Spacety
The firm has so far been involved in 10 launches and seen 18 satellites reach orbit. Spacety provides small satellite platforms with masses of 10, 20 to 50 kg, and 200 kg. Clients include governments, research institutes, universities, and commercial companies, says CEO Yang Feng. The company has received several rounds of venture capital funding totaling about US $36 million, according to Crunchbase.
One client is LaserFleet, a commercial spinoff from the CAS. LaserFleet aims to construct a constellation of 288 laser communications satellites to provide global broadband coverage for aviation. The first tech demonstration mission reached orbit in November. Yang says other clients and projects are planning missions related to theInternet of Things (IoT) and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B).
In another project, Spacety is working with Tsinghua University to implement the Gamma Ray Integrated Detectors (GRID) project. GRID aims to put 24 satellites in orbit to monitor extremely energetic explosions known as gamma ray bursts. A Spacety 6U CubeSat carrying the first GRID detector launched in October 2018 after a short development time.
Traditional larger missions are much more capable but resource intensive. NASA’s 4,300-kilogram Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which launched in 2008, cost $690 million. The main instrument took more than 10 years to develop. Spacety leaves the more arduous and time-intensive task of developing and certifying large satellites to China's traditional, state-owned space actors.
Spacety’s Xiaoxiang-1-07 CubeSat undergoing testing.Photo: Spacety
Yang says Spacety has several missions planned for 2020, with most set for the second half of the year. In December, Spacety signed an agreement with Chinese private rocket company Landspace for a ride on the first launch of the Zhuque-2 launch vehicle in 2021.
One of the major concerns created by the explosion of small satellite activity is space debris. A satellite from SpaceX's Starlink Internet megaconstellation, which could grow to include thousands of satellites, recently came close to hitting a European satellite.
CubeSats are typically too small to have their own propulsion and thus lack any means to maneuver out of the way of debris or deorbit themselves after their mission lifetimes. Defunct spacecraft, each traveling at speeds of more than seven kilometers per second, remain in orbit and increase the likelihood of future collisions—which would create yet more debris.
In what could be a promising step toward addressing this problem, Spacety has partnered with ThrustMe, a French space propulsion startup to test light, inexpensive solid ion thrusters for CubeSats and small satellites to provide a measure of maneuverability. Notably the mission took just eight months from signing the contract to launch of the first Spacety satellite to incorporate these thrusters.
Spacety is now moving to develop its own payloads for its satellites. The company’s MiniSar is a synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellite with a mass of about 150 kg that can provide images with a resolution of 1 meter per pixel. This follows the lead of Finnish startup Iceye, which already has small high performance SAR satellites in orbit.
“MiniSar is a challenge to us, because it is our first mini-SAR with high performance. We are implementing many innovative new designs in this satellite, and how to minimize the risks to have a successful mission is a challenge,” says Yang. MiniSAR is scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2020.
Yang notes that the “impact of coronavirus may be seen in our business operations” but remains positive. “Because of the successful missions and the excellent services we have provided, the international space community has realized our capabilities… as a result, more customers are coming to us for services both in China and internationally.”
Spacety is now looking to expand its engagement with European firms. In September, the company set up a subsidiary in Luxembourg. While U.S. firms are prohibited from launching on Chinese rockets, Spacety is considering launching on Indian rockets to circumvent such issues. Clearly, in this ‘NewSpace’ era, opportunities abound.
Andrew Jones is a freelance journalist based near Helsinki. He writes about the space industry and technology with a particular focus on China's activities.