There was a time when space missions were run exclusively by national space agencies and their contractors.
Then came SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other private ventures -- bringing innovative solutions like reusable rockets. They even have their sights set on spacecraft that will one day take humans as far as Mars.
Now one ambitious startup in China has made history by launching the country’s first private commercial rocket.
Chinese media say the 29.5-foot Chongqing Liangjiang Star took off from a testing facility in northwest China. It flew 170 miles (approximately the distance between New York and Baltimore) in just over 5 minutes, before plunging back to Earth as planned.
But unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or Blue Origin’s New Glenn, the Chinese rocket developed by OneSpace is designed for suborbital flights -- going up and down again without circling the Earth.
Going into orbit requires a much higher speed and a lot more energy. In contrast, suborbital vehicles can travel more slowly -- which means they are typically smaller, lighter, and cheaper. The Chongqing Liangjiang Star weighs 15,900 pounds -- not much heavier than an African elephant.
Another key difference? OneSpace says its rocket runs on a solid-fuel engine, which is safer and cheaper than a liquid-fuel one like that on Falcon 9. But there’s a big trade-off: Solid fuel can only be ignited once, which means the motor can’t be turned off.
OneSpace founder and CEO Shu Chang told Pear Video that right now the company is focused on launching microsatellites, which usually weigh only a few dozen pounds -- as opposed to SpaceX’s larger probes. It plans to test more rockets later this year.
He said eventually the company wants to build a capsule to bring passengers and cargo into space.
Founded in Beijing in 2015, OneSpace says so far it’s managed to raise 500 million yuan (US$78 million) -- which, as CNN points out, is a tiny sum compared to industry standards. OneSpace told Xinhua it managed to cut costs by using energy-saving technology.
But much of the attention from Chinese media is centered on how young the team is: The average age of staff is reportedly just 32. In China, CEO Shu has been compared to SpaceX founder Elon Musk (46) -- but he’s not the only one.
Liu Ruopeng, the chairman of KuangChi Science, has also been nicknamed the Elon Musk of China. His company says it’s developing a capsule attached to a giant balloon that can take humans up to 320,000 feet above Earth, an area known as near space.
China was late to the space race, and in many ways, it’s still far behind the US and Russia. The country has said it wants to reach Mars by 2020 -- more than two decades after NASA’s Sojourner rover touched down on the red planet.