Commercial exploration of space will become an unstoppable trend as more strong private start-ups enter the commercial aerospace industry in China, said experts.
As the world held its breath in anticipation of SpaceX's launch of Falcon Heavy, a Chinese individually-funded satellite was launched last week, capable of operating in space for one year to take and transmit pictures and videos of the universe.
The FMN 1 is a panoramic-camera CubeSat, a type of miniaturized satellite made up of multiple cubic units, and will be used to help members of the public observe outer space, according to a statement from China Great Wall Industry Corp, which provided the launch service, China National Radio (CNR) reported on Sunday.
The satellite was carried on a Long March 2D carrier rocket at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China, along with the much larger ZH 1 - the nation's first seismo-electromagnetic satellite, which can help scientists better study earthquakes - as well as five other small satellites like the FMN 1, said the report.
It said that the satellite program was funded solely by real estate tycoon Feng Lun, chairman of Beijing-based Vantone Holdings, who spent 5 million yuan (0,000) on the launch.
While this launch is only an exploration with the aim of promoting charity and education, future satellite launches will seek to make profits, Feng was quoted by CNR as saying.
Feng could not be reached for comment as of press time and Vantone told the Global Times on Tuesday that he no longer works at the company. He was quoted earlier by CNR as saying that he hoped the satellite would enable the public to get closer to space and also give him a new platform for mass communication. He also said the satellite would fly over China three times a day and will be able to transmit data back to the ground at those times.
Lack of resources
However, Jiao Weixin, a space science professor at Peking University, told the Global Times on Wednesday that private Chinese firms have less involvement in the aerospace industry since they need more resources and talent than a single private enterprise can gather.
If a private company wants to launch a satellite, it has to first get approval from the authorities, then find and pay for a launch service before being able actually to launch.
According to the CNR report, the approval for the FMN 1 only took half a year.
Some Chinese private companies are gradually exploring the space market amid the deepening of military-civilian integration, Wang Yanan, deputy editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the Global Times.
China encourages private companies to jointly explore space, as some of them are getting stronger, said Wang.
In 2014, the State Council, China's cabinet, formally announced it would allow private companies to research, manufacture and launch as well as operate commercial satellites, prompting a batch of Chinese entrepreneurs to pitch ideas in the industry.
In addition to the easing of entry restrictions, the government proposed in 2015 the strategy of integrating civilian and military cooperation in technology to promote the country's space programs, which has led to the rapid development of China's private space sector.
Wang noted that cooperating with national agencies will help these private companies grow faster, and the two will be able to complement each other.
However, funding is a major challenge for the development of domestic space companies, as they have to make enormous investments in research and manufacturing, and it takes a long time to see a return, said Jiao.
It costs millions of yuan to launch a micro-nano satellite, and hundreds of millions for a large satellite, so Feng's case is very rare, he said.
While China's space start-ups are still in the nascent development stage, commercial exploration of space is an unstoppable trend, said Jiao, adding that the current number of launch bases and rockets doesn't meet the demand for launching commercial satellites. As a result, many private companies are building their own launch bases and rockets.
On January 22, Beijing-based start-up One Space Technology Co. successfully completed the test for its self-developed liquid attitude control engine of its OS-M rockets. And in coming June, it will launch its first OS-X rocket, which is designed for suborbital flights in order to provide high-altitude research and test services, following a successful series of tests on its solid-propellant engine in December 2017.
Another Beijing-based company, LandSpace Technology, is also expected to debut its LandSpace-1 rocket this year. In January 2017, LandSpace signed a contract with Denmark-based satellite manufacturer GOMspace, becoming the first Chinese company to develop its own commercial rockets that will provide services to the international market.