China celebrated the country’s first rocket launch by a private spaceflight company this week. OneSpace Technologies, based out of Beijing, launched its OS-X rocket from an undisclosed location on a suborbital trajectory on Wednesday, reaching a reported altitude of 25 miles and traveling about 170 miles before falling back to Earth. It’s the first demonstration of what the company says will become a scalable business built around sending small satellites into space.
Until now, China’s space industry has been dominated by the government’s space agency, the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The agency has sent satellites, science missions, and even people to space. It has also put robots on the Moon, placed two space stations in orbit, and has big plans for the coming decades.
After about half a century of a national space program, China decided to get private enterprise into space, too. President Xi Jinping made it a particular priority for the country in 2012, when he said he wanted China to become a “spaceflight superpower.” And in 2014, the Chinese government formally allowed private companies to start working toward launching satellites.
OneSpace is the first private Chinese company to launch a rocket, and it has big plans. The company’s CEO, Shu Chang, told state-run news outlet China Daily that he hopes OneSpace becomes “one of the biggest small-satellite launchers in the world,” and that it plans to perform 10 launches in 2019.
Shu also likened the company to SpaceX in an interview with CNN Money. It’s a comparison that other outlets have drawn, but one that doesn’t totally bear out. For one thing, OneSpace is using different technology. While Shu says the company plans to eventually build rockets capable of lifting larger satellites (and potentially humans) into space, its current rocket stands just 30 feet tall and can only carry about 220 pounds into orbit. That’s less than half the 70 foot height of SpaceX’s first rocket, the Falcon 1, and far below the height (230 feet) and lift capacity (more than 50,000 pounds) of its current rocket, the Falcon 9. OneSpace also uses solid rocket fuel, which is generally more stable and simple to build, but means the rocket boosters can’t be reused; SpaceX, meanwhile, uses liquid fuel, and recovers its rockets after launch.
Shu told CNN that “this is the first rocket developed and built entirely with homegrown technology,” but the outlet noted that he previously worked for a “state-owned aerospace company.” OneSpace was reportedly founded with money from the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, and this particular flight was paid for China’s state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation, according to Quartz. And the rocket’s other name (the “Chongqing Liangjiang Star”) is a nod to state-run Chongqing Liangjiang Aviation Industry Investment Group — which OneSpace is partnering with to build a research and manufacturing base that will be part of the Chinese government’s massive Belt and Road initiative.
However, OneSpace is emulating SpaceX by straddling the line between being privately-run and government-funded. While Elon Musk’s spaceflight company is private, it has benefitted greatly from a number of NASA contracts throughout the years as it built up its commercial customer base — including one that essentially saved the company from an early collapse in 2008.
It’s not yet clear whether OneSpace will shake up the small satellite market. There is a rush of competition aiming at specifically launching small satellites, from big corporations like Virgin to small startups like Rocket Lab to mainstays like Orbital ATK, all of which are trying to grab ahold of a nearly half-trillion dollar global business.
It’s also not clear whether US or other western satellite companies would be able to even buy a ride on a OneSpace rocket. The US government places strict controls on the export of satellites, which until a few years ago were still classified as weapons. “Chinese rockets are not an option for US companies,” a spokesperson for Planet, one of the leading operators of Earth-imaging satellites, tells The Verge.
OneSpace already has plenty competition at home to deal with, too. The loosening of restrictions in 2014 has lead to the creation of around a half-dozen spaceflight startups, all of which are looking to launch satellites, all while the government’s space program turns its eyes to bigger, bolder projects like a permanent space station and an ambitious robotic Mars mission in 2020.