China’s suborbital space tourism ambitions heat up as two companies seek to challenge Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic – Parabolic Arc

CAS Space crewed suborbital vehicle in flight. (Credit: Espace CAS)

by Douglas Messier
Chief Editor

Two Chinese companies – CAS Space and Space Transportation – are pursuing the suborbital tourism market, with the former closely copying Blue Origin’s fully reusable New Shepard vehicle and the latter developing a winged vehicle that could be adapted for hypersonic point-to-point travel between remote destinations. locations on Earth.

CAS Space, aka Guangzhou Zhongke Aerospace Exploration Technology Co., Ltd., develops a reusable single-stage rocket that lands under its own power, surmounted by a capsule that descends under three parachutes.

CAS Space’s vehicle, designated ZK-6, will be powered by five Xuanyuan rocket engines while New Shepard has a single BE-3 engine. ZK-6 will have seven passenger seats and four windows; New Shepard has room for six people who each have their own window to gaze upon Earth and space.

CAS Space plans to conduct the vehicle’s first unmanned flight test in 2023, a delay from an earlier plan to fly this year. Commercial service will follow once the flight test program is complete.

CAS Space suborbital vehicle on the launch pad. (Credit: Espace CAS)

Last month, the company announced a strategic cooperation framework agreement with China Tourism Group Travel Service Company (CTS Travel) to work together to develop the space tourism market. CTS Travel is a wholly owned subsidiary of China Tourism Group which has nearly 3,000 branches nationwide and 60 branches in 28 overseas countries and regions.

CAS Space is a spin-off from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which partly owns the company. ZK-6 is part of a family of rockets that the company is to serve the suborbital launch and small to medium range markets. On July 27, the company launched six spacecraft into orbit on the maiden flight of its ZK-1A (Lijian-1) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Tianxing hypersonic vehicle (Credit: Space Transportation)

On wings and an engine

Space Transportation, aka Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology, is advancing with its own program. The company said on its website that it conducted six test flights this year as part of its Tianxing program to develop suborbital and hypersonic vehicles. The launches were split evenly between the Tianxing I and Tianxing II rockets.

Space Transportation’s goal is to develop a suborbital space plane capable of transporting tourists on suborbital flights. The winged system is very different from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, which is currently in flight test.

Development plan of Tianxing suborbital space plane and hypersonic transport vehicle. (Credit: Space Transportation)

A larger space transport vehicle would be a high-speed means of transportation that would fly between distant locations on Earth in less than two hours. The image below shows the evolution of the planned test vehicles.

The company has released very little information about the six launches it has made this year. It’s not even known where the flights took place, although Wikipedia says they may have been made from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Space Transportation has released the following development schedule:

2019-2022: technological verifications by flight tests;
2023: flight test of the suborbital space tourism prototype;
2025: crewed flight of a space tourism vehicle;
2028: flight test of the global hypersonic vehicle prototype; and
2030: Completion of the full-scale global hypersonic vehicle.

Flight profile of the Tianxing hypersonic vehicle. (Credit: Space Transportation)

Space Transportation has raised $60.6 million in three funding rounds. The company announced a Series A round in August 2021 that totaled $46.3 million. Matrix Partners China and Shanghai Guosheng Group led the round with new investors Wuyuefeng Capital, Xiamen Feiyu Yinghang and Shanghai Huygens.

Previous investors Source Code Capital, Volcanic Stone Capital, Keke Li Venture Capital, Yuanhe Yuandian and Zhencheng Investment also contributed to Series A. The five investors were part of a $14.3 million seed round announced in December 2019.

Source Capital led an angel funding round announced in March 2019.

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