3, 2, 1 ... China to sell space on its launch-and-return satellites to commercial users

  • China may start offering the service to commercial users as soon as next year
  • The collaboration could extend to experiments on China’s planned space station, which is expected to be completed around 2022
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2018, 10:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 12:18am

As one of only a few countries with the technology, China plans to offer businesses in the international community the use of some of its recoverable satellites.

Zhang Hongtai, president of the China Academy of Space Technology, a satellite and spacecraft maker, was quoted by state press agency Xinhua as saying China may start offering the satellites to commercial users from next year.

China’s space programme is one of a mere handful that can launch and recover satellites. The others are operated by the United States, France, Russia, Japan, India and the European Space Agency.

Su Meng, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Hong Kong, said retrieving spacecraft is not easy because it is costly and involves technological difficulties such as controlling the landing location.

Guo Rui, a crop researcher in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, said Chinese scientists had been allowed to use recoverable satellites for experiments in space since the 1980s, particularly to study how zero gravity and exposure to cosmic radiation affects plants.

“Chinese scientists have conducted around 30 plant experiments in space since 1987, when China’s ninth recoverable satellite carried wheat seeds into orbit,” Guo said.

“It has been a powerful tool to cultivate better crop varieties, and we’ve seen more collaboration with international scientists.”

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The possible collaboration could extend to experiments on China’s planned space station, which is expected to be completed around 2022.

In May, China said all member states of the United Nations were welcome to make use of the large permanent satellite, which will have a service life of 10 years.

China has allowed international researchers to use its recoverable technology since it became the third country – after the US and what was then the Soviet Union – to safely bring down an orbiting satellite in 1975.

In the 1980s, German scientists were among the first researchers to use China’s recoverable satellites for microgravity experiments, according to Tang Bochang, a space engineer behind the launch of China’s latest such satellite, Shijian10. But those were scientific collaborations rather than commercial ventures.

“At that time, only the United States, the Soviet Union and China had mastered the technology of returnable satellites, and the International Space Station was yet to be built,” China Science Daily quoted Tang as saying earlier this year.

“So both France and Germany asked to use China’s returnable satellite to carry out experiments.”

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Back then, recoverable satellites were mainly used in defence and reconnaissance operations, he said.

“Now, the true function of recoverable satellites is to carry scientific experiments into space and bring them back,” Tang said.