Smartphone satellite: Qihoo 360 to become first Chinese private company to send rocket into space - on New Year’s Day

Company vows to launch latest handset as de facto nanosatellite to photograph earth and smog, shows echoes of Nasa’s PhoneSat project

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 5:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 5:31pm

Chinese internet company Qihoo 360 Technology will send a smartphone into space on January 1 from the nation’s new space launch centre on southern Hainan Island, it said this week.

Apart from getting 2016 off to an auspicious start, the event also marks the first rocket launch by a private company in the history of China’s space programme.

Once in orbit, the handset will effectively operate like a small satellite. It is expected to use a high-definition camera to take photographs of the earth and possibly record the notorious smog that hangs over China during the winter months, when coal is used to keep people warm in the frozen north.

Qihoo, which covers a broad range of businesses from anti-virus software to tech hardware, announced in December that it was forming a US$409 million joint venture with Coolpad called QiKU to make smartphones together.

The first model was released this August. Coincidentally, several, including the Q Terra and Q Luna, have cosmic-sounding names. Qihoo retains a controlling 75 per cent stake in the JV.

In an email correspondence with the South China Morning Post, Qihoo confirmed on Wednesday that it would be sending the company’s “latest smartphone” into “near-earth orbit”.

The launch date is expected to be New Year’s Day and the venue the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre, the largest space facility ever built in China.

The company declined to provide further details.

Some pundits predict the chosen model will likely be its flagship Q Terra smarthphone.

In the absence of any explanation from Qihoo as to why it is pushing ahead with the launch, this is widely viewed as a marketing gimmick to show both the resilience and advanced nature of its tech hardware.

Meanwhile, China is building a large modular space station for low-earth orbit that it hopes to launch by 2020, a date by which the country also hopes to have its first robot in space.

Some Chinese media reported on the “spacephone” earlier this week. Most concluded the rocket would need to be small, with some claiming it will be about 5 metres long and 0.28 metres wide.

The smartphone and other scientific materials will be coated in special materials to shield them from the bombardment of cosmic radiations and extremely low temperatures, the reports said.

They added that the launch was inspired by Nasa’s PhoneSat project in 2009.

This was tasked with using smartphones as satellites to show how costs of the US space programme could be downsized. Each “satellite” in that programme reportedly cost between US$3,500 and US$7,000. They have already successfully been used to capture images of the earth from space.

Qihoo said on its Weibo microblogging account that other Chinese smartphone makers such as Xiaomi and Huawei may also join the space rocket programme in the future.

China’s aeronautic authorities have said in recent years they welcome the participation of the private sector to join the government’s space programme, as they believe the additional funding and innovative technology can help accelerate its development.