In a First, Private Chinese Company Puts Satellites in Orbit

Two other Chinese start-ups have tried to put satellites in orbit previously, but failed.

New Delhi: Beijing-based start-up iSpace successfully put satellites in orbit on Thursday afternoon – becoming the first private Chinese firm to do so.

The company’s Hyperbola-1 rocket blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, carrying two satellites and several experimental payloads, according to Global Times. This is the largest and most powerful rocket built by a private Chinese space company, iSpace said in a statement.

According to a SpaceNews report, the launch vehicle had three solid stages and a liquid-propellant fourth stage.

While Thursday’s successful launch may have put iSpace on the map, the company has more plans for the future. Hyperbola-2, a 2.5-meter-diameter, 38-meter-tall launch vehicle powered by liquid-methane and liquid-oxygen engines, is under development, SpaceNews reported.

Also read: Don’t Panic! The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Creating a Space Startup in India

In an interview to a Chinese website, iSpace vice-president Huo Jia had said that he believed there would be just one or two commercial launch companies in China in the next 5-10 years, SpaceNews said. “China’s rocket technology is very mature,” Huo was quoted as saying. “The key is that the satellite downstream application market has not been developed, so the demand for satellite launch is not great.”

Two other Chinese start-ups have tried to put satellites in orbit previously, but failed. Landspace made an attempt in October 2018 and OneSpace in March 2019, but neither made it to orbit, Reuters reported.

Several private space companies are trying to make their mark in China, after the government opened up the launch and small satellite sectors to private capital. “The speed of the development of launch vehicles by private companies in China has been accelerated by a civil-military integration national strategy, facilitating the transfer of restricted technologies to approved firms in order to promote innovation in dual-use technology,” according to SpaceNews.

In India, whether or not the Indian Space Research Organisation should help start-ups grow has been the subject of debate.

Also read: Are ISRO and India Willing to Do What It Takes to Make It in Space?

Kris Nair, the founder of Mumbai-based Exseed Space – the only Indian company that has put a satellite in space, piggybacking on SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018 – believes it would make a world of a difference.

In an article in The Print, he said, “With the many years of expertise of ISRO scientists and technological advances by them, there is much knowledge to be shared with others in the industry with a ‘co-beneficial for the nation’ mindset.”

“ISRO collaborating with private companies gives India an edge and truly democratises space exploration,” he said.

There has also been criticism that India sees “as a tool for nation-building that is purely the preserve of the government” – which is why it lags behind China and the US when it comes to private players

In June 2019, several Indian space start-ups picked up some investors.

Yashas Karanam, the founder of Bengaluru-based Bellatrix Aerospace, raised $3 million from a group of investors – the biggest investment in an private Indian space player. Bellatrix Aerospace intends to to propel satellites into orbit using electric and non-toxic chemical thrusters.

Bellatrix Aerospace CEO Rohan Ganapathy stands next to a vacuum chamber at their laboratory in Bengaluru. Photo: Reuters/Ismail Shakil

Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Kawa Space, which designs and operates earth observation satellites, has closed a seed round of an undisclosed amount, one of its investors, Vishesh Rajaram, managing partner at Speciale Invest, told Reuters.

Their fundraising represents a big leap in private space investments in India where the government has enjoyed a near-monopoly for decades.

Most Indian space startups are hopeful that parliament will pass a long-pending space law, which will give clarity on how private companies can operate in the sector.

The administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought suggestions from stakeholders for a draft Space Activities Bill, which it has said could “possibly” be introduced in parliament this year.

(With inputs from Reuters)