Chinese companies plan to offer space sightseeing flights by 2025

One of the most famous features of Space Age 2.0 is the rise of the commercial space industry, also known as “NewSpace”. While the world’s space agencies plan to send astronauts to the Moon (this time, to stay there), crewed missions to Mars, and robotic missions to every corner of the solar system, NewSpace companies are offering cost-effective launches, sending commercial astronauts into space and commercializing Low Earth Orbit (LEO). There’s also the prospect of space tourism, with companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX offering suborbital flights, travel to LEO and beyond!

China, one of the fastest growing countries in space, is looking to offer commercial flights to suborbital space. According to rocket scientists Yang Yiqiang, who spoke to the state-owned company Chinese Global Television Network (CGTN), China will send its first group of commercial passengers on a space flight, with ticket prices ranging from $287,200 to $430,800 (2 to 3 million yuan). As China is a relative newcomer to the commercial space scene, this announcement signals its intention to catch up with US-based companies and other space competitors.

Illustration of the first two types of commercial space travel: flights to the ISS (right) and twin-body designs (left). Credit: PCP

Yang Yiqiang was the general manager of the Long March 11 rocket project and the founder of the Beijing-based rocket company CAS area (created in 2018). As Yang explained, there are currently three spatial light modes:

  1. The International Space Station (ISS): These are launchers that send spacecraft to rendezvous with the ISS. This sets strict requirements on the physical and psychological conditions of tourists.
  2. Lift and release: This consists of a cargo plane lifting another spacecraft to release altitude and the spacecraft flying at suborbital altitude. Virgin Galactic offers this mode with its white knight two planes (and other “motherships”) and VSS unit and To imagine spatialship.
  3. Rocket flights: These are launchers that send capsules to suborbital altitudes. This is the mode Blue Origin is dedicated to using its New Shephard reusable launch vehicle.

According to Yang, this third mode will be the most suitable for commercial passengers and the one on which China will focus. Based on the artwork presented by CGTN, this will likely involve using the Long March 3C (CZ-3C) to launch a shenzhen spacecraft (and/or a converted spacecraft Tianzhou automated cargo vessel) with a crew of three. China next generation crewed spacecraft (a reusable vehicle intended to replace the shenzhen) can accommodate up to seven passengers and is likely to be used for tourist activities.

China’s commercial space sector is still a few decades behind the curve set by its American counterpart, which emerged in the 1980s but has only matured since the turn of the century. However, China has experienced significant growth over the past seven years due to increased investment, competition and technological innovation. According to a industry reportChina had more than 370 companies focused on satellite manufacturing, rocket launches and related services.

Until now, Yang said, China’s business sector has been in the “1.0 era,” characterized by basic manufacturing, research and development. But with these new steps underway, China has entered the “2.0 era”, driven by applications and market forces. At their current rate of progress, Yang says they will reach parity with the United States within ten years. “The key to the development of China’s commercial space sector is application rather than rockets or satellites,” he said. “We need to make sure ordinary people have access to the sector.”

An illustration of suborbital space travel (the third type of commercial spaceflight). Credit: PCP

The Chinese government has also signaled its interest in becoming part of the growing satellite market and LEO commercialization with the passage of landmark legislation. This includes the passage of State Council Document No. 60 in 2014, which opened up China’s “civil aviation infrastructure” to capital investment. The 14th five-year plan (2021-2025), officially approved in March 2021, also set many priorities to achieve the development goals they hope to achieve by 2035. Among them, the plan called on China to:

“Accelerate the provision of satellite telecommunications networks and other such innovative networks aimed at global coverage, implement Beidou’s major industrialization projects, and build application demonstrations and open labs.” Accelerate the commercial application and integrated innovation of the Beidou system, satellite telecommunications networks, surface and low-altitude sensing and other similar space network infrastructure.

The price quoted by CGTN is clearly intended to be competitive with US-based launch services. On February 16, Virgin Galactic began taking reservations for the first 1,000 customers, with tickets priced at $450,000 each (and customers must pay a deposit of $150,000 to hold their place). According to the Space Foundation’s Space Report 2022 Q2, the commercial space sector grew to $469 billion in 2021. This represents an increase of 11% from 2020 ($424 billion) and a 70% increase since 2010.

In addition to this, a recent Citibank report says the industry will hit $1 trillion in annual revenue by 2040, with launch costs down 95% to unlock more services from orbit. This growth explains not only the rise of the market for satellite megaconstellations, but also passenger flights to space and commercial activities in orbit (private space stations, space hotels, etc.). Clearly, China wants a piece of the action, worthy of its emergence as a major player. power in space!

Further reading: CGTN

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