CAS Space puts six satellites into orbit with first orbital launch

HELSINKI — Chinese launch service provider CAS Space successfully placed six small satellites into orbit early Wednesday with the first launch of the Lijian-1 solid-state rocket.

The Lijian-1 (ZK-1A) four-stage rocket lifted off from an erector-launcher at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 00:12 a.m. Eastern Time. The successful launch was confirmed by China’s official space publication less than an hour after liftoff.

The rocket had a takeoff weight of 135 tons, an overall length of 30 meters, a center stage diameter of 2.65 meters, a fairing diameter of 2.65 meters and can carry 1,500 kilograms of payload on a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, according at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The six satellites, some developed by the Academy of Microsatellite Innovation of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, were loosely described to carry out research in the field of space technology, atmospheric density measurements, experiments in distribution of quantum keys and electromagnetic tests, according to Chinese state media.

The Nanyue science satellite, developed by SASTSpace under the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), will be used for science popularization. It also carries a GNSS-R payload, detecting reflected signals from Beidou and GPS satellites to perform soil moisture measurements. It also carries an ion propulsion system developed by SAST’s 803rd Research Institute.

Launch facilities include a horizontally retractable cover and a launcher erector, orbital images reveal.

The Lijian-1 has similar capabilities to the Jielong-3 (Smart Dragon-3) rocket set to be launched in the coming months and developed by China Rocket, a spin-off company from the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).

China’s state-owned and commercial space entities have developed a range of solid rockets with varying capabilities in recent years, with the trend seen as an effort to strengthen the country’s overall space capabilities.

Lijian-1 is now China’s largest operational solid launch vehicle, and CAS Space is also developing larger rockets. Expace, a spin-off from missile manufacturer CASIC, is also works on a range of big, solid rockets.

Lijian-1 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

CAS Space is a commercial spinoff of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). The company raised $31 million in 2021, but the main investors were CITIC Juxin, ultimately owned by the public investment company CITIC Group Corporation, Zhongke Chuangxing, an accelerator fund established by CAS, and Yuexiu Industrial Investment, another public investment vehicle , operating in the Guangdong-Hong Greater Kong Bay-Macau region.

The industrial base of CAS Space was established in Nansha district in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province. Nansha says it aims to foster a complete industrial chain including rockets (upstream), satellites (middle) and downstream applications. Space subsidiaries of automaker Geely, including Geespace, Shanghe Aerospace and Xingkong Zhilian, have also set up shop in Nansha.

Parent company CAS is developing a range of spacecraft, including Beidou satellites, and has launched sounding rockets before, but Wednesday’s orbital launch marks a big step forward. However, solid rockets seem to be just the start of CAS Space’s ambitions.

CAS Space is also working on reusable liquid engines with the aim of developing recoverable launch vehicles. A new website unveiled by the company in recent days shows renders of launch vehicles similar to the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and New Shepard launch vehicles.

The reusable suborbital launch vehicle is being developed for space tourism in the same way as Blue Origin’s New Shepard, sending up to seven passengers on 10-minute rides, passing briefly over the Kármán line at 100 kilometers altitude .

The company recently sign an agreement with China Tourism Group to boost these efforts and a first test launch is planned around 2024.

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