China narrows field for low-cost space station cargo missions

China narrows field for low-cost space station cargo missions

Covering the business and politics of space

HELSINKI — China’s human spaceflight agency has chosen four proposals to advance to the next stage of low-cost cargo transportation system development for the country’s space station.

Out of 10 received proposals deemed to have met requirements, four have been selected to advance to a detailed design study phase, the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) announced Sept. 26.

The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), which developed China’s space station modules, Tianzhou cargo vessels and crewed spacecraft, and the country’s other large spacecraft developer, the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), proceed to the next stage.

CMSEO also select the Innovation Academy for Microsatellites (IAMCAS) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) to advance to the next round.

Requirements for the system include being capable of sending not less than 1,800 kilograms to low Earth orbit. Additionally, it must offer a price of no more than 120 million yuan (US$17.2 million) per 1,000 kilograms delivered. The spacecraft should also be capable of controlled reentry and able to dispose of more than 2,000 kilograms of waste upon reentry.

The agency did not outline future phases or a timeline, nor did it indicate how many proposals could eventually receive approval for implementation.

CMSEO issued its call for proposals in May this year. It said it sought to reduce the cost and enhance the flexibility of sending supplies to Tiangong through exploring the development of commercial space models.

However, all of the four groups selected for the next stage belong to state-owned entities. Commercial firms and launch vehicle makers, including the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), another institute under the aegis of space and defense contractor CASC, along with CAST and SAST.

AZSpace, a commercial firm, did not make the cut. It earlier announced that it aims to launch its 300-kg-capacity B300 reusable cargo spacecraft this year.

Nor did InterSpace Explore, another company developing cargo spacecraft. It planned to launch its Zengzhang-1 demonstration returnable satellite on a Galactic Energy Ceres-1 solid rocket this year. Those plans however likely face delay on the launch side. Galactic Energy suffering its first Ceres-1 failure in 10 attempts just days ago.

CMSEO first signaled its apparent openness to commercial cargo services in early 2021. This likely led to the establishment of companies such as AZSPACE and Interspace Explore. How the failure to be selected will affect the plans of these companies is unclear at this juncture.

Rocket maker Orienspace also saw its proposal fail to proceed. The Shandong-based company is currently working towards its first launch in December this year with its Gravity-1 large solid rocket. Beijing-based satellite manufacturer MinoSpace also submitted a proposal.

Proposals underwent a careful review and evaluation by a team of experts at CMSEO. The panel assessed aspects including comprehensiveness, feasibility, technological advancement and maturity and business model. The rationality of funding costs, research and development capabilities and expertise were other factors considered.

China completed the basic structure of its three-module Tiangong (“heavenly palace”) space station in late 2022.

China currently uses 14-ton Tianzhou spacecraft launched by Long March 7 rockets to resupply its space station. A Tianzhou will launch every eight months to stock the outpost with supplies for crew, equipment and experiments. The craft also deliver propellant for maintaining Tiangong’s orbit.

China aims to keep its space station permanently occupied for at least a decade. CMSEO is also looking at expanding Tiangong with a multi-functional module. It is also looking at opening it to various commercial purposes including tourism.

Tomas Hrozensky, a senior research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), told SpaceNews in May that the CMSEO proposal is a clear indication that China is seeking to replicate the approach which yielded NASA a major success.

NASA’s own Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program awarded contracts in late 2008 to Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX. The first cargo flights to the International Space Station in 2012.

China’s human spaceflight agency could expand the number of such initiatives in the future.

“We will continue to publish engineering-related project requirements and proposal solicitation announcements in the future,” the CMSEO statement read.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...

all events >>

Get top stories, military space news and more delivered to your inbox.