Space Commerce

Why The Chinese Equivalent To Starlink Could Launch In 2023

By Blaine Curcio
March 28, 2023
Filed under , ,
Why The Chinese Equivalent To Starlink Could Launch In 2023
Long March-5B at Wenchang – CNSA

Not long after the rapid acceleration of Starlink launches around the end of 2019/beginning of 2020, we began to see the early stages of a Chinese response, via a number of different broadband constellation projects.

Initially this consisted of two projects, Hongyan and Hongyun, first announced in 2016 and 2017 by CASC and CASIC, respectively. These two broadband constellations of moderate sizes (320 and 156 satellites respectively) eventually merged into one single “Guowang” megaconstellation around 2020.

For a deeper dive into the history of this constellation project, the government initiatives, and the relevant players involved, check out our China Space Monitor from last month.

Today, we are going to dig into the near-term timeline for China’s Guowang constellation. Details from the operating company, China Satellite Networks Limited, have been very scarce, but in reading the tea leaves and putting together several disparate pieces of evidence, we can speculate that initial Guowang deployment might take place as soon as this year.

A Mystery Long March-5B

The first piece of evidence pointing towards a batch LEO broadband satellite launch this year is a not spoken-for Long March-5B, set to launch later this year. To review, the LM-5B is China’s most powerful rocket today. The beast of a heavy lift rocket has sent the Chinese Space Station and other modules to orbit with payload capacity to LEO of some 25,000kg, and more recently, is being modified with the Yuanzheng upper-stage engine.

The Yuanzheng would, among other things, enable the deployment of constellations of satellites. The announcement of the Yuanzheng modification, made in late 2022, was met with much speculation among Chinese observers that the LM-5B would be launching LEO broadband constellations.

Another hint came from a post by China’s largest rocket manufacturer, the Chinese Academy of Launch Technology (CALT). In January 2023, the company wrote that at least one Long March 5B launch was planned during this year. This brings us to a very interesting game of speculation on what the payload might be.

The Long March 5B is known to launch a limited number of payloads:

— First of all, there are the Chinese space station modules: but this can’t be it in 2023 as the CSS was completed at the end of 2022.

— The Xuntian Space Telescope: this is a possibility, but most past reports and educated guesses from Chinese sources point at a launch in 2024.

— A test launch of China’s lunar spacecraft (NGCS): this is technically possible. One such launch was performed in 2020 with an NGCS demonstrator, and we know that the NGCS is a central piece of China’s upcoming crewed lunar mission (to take place by 2030 according to the official timeline). Yet the Long March 5B isn’t China’s lunar rocket, and it isn’t human-rated. There has also been no report suggesting such a launch.

— The last possibility, probably the most likely, is a test launch of the “constellation-version” of the Long March 5B, adapted with the Yuanzheng upper-stage. One final hint in this direction is that CALT also stated in January that all three versions of the Yuanzheng upper stage would be launched this year. This naturally includes the Yuanzheng 2, which is designed specifically for… the Long March 5 series.

So, while we cannot be 100% certain about the payload on this mystery LM-5B, hints would seem to point towards batch deployment of satellites for a constellation project. At the same time, several commercial launch companies have announced debut launches during 2023 and 2024, and in some cases, they are sold out.

For example, CAS Space announced their next 6 launches recently, of which 4 are completely sold out, representing ~6,000kg of mass. While speculative, we may assume at least some of this launch capacity will be used by LEO communications constellations.

And a Plethora of Factories Gearing to Ramp Up

When reading the proverbial tea leaves surrounding Chinese LEO constellations, perhaps more important than the circumstantial launch evidence is the supply side picture: from an industrial base/manufacturing perspective, how close is China to being able to build hundreds, or thousands of satellites?

From this perspective, China is indeed home to a formidable satellite manufacturing industrial base, perhaps capable of producing >500 satellites this year, even if the actual number launched would end up being vastly smaller. The >500 figure takes into account several existing satellite manufacturers, and several new factories that have recently or will soon be completed.

Commsat Factory in Tangshan

New factories coming online include one built by aerospace giant CASIC in Wuhan as part of its larger Wuhan Aerospace Industrial Base. An article from late 2022 published in part by the Xinzhou District Government of Wuhan noted that the factory was essentially completed, and that it had reached its design throughput of 240 satellites per year of less than 1 ton. Closer to Beijing, September 2022 saw an article from commercial satellite manufacturer Commsat about their factory in Tangshan, pictured below. The first phase of the factory, which was completed at the end of 2022, can produce up to 50 standardized satellites, or 20 customized satellites, simultaneously. In Nantong, Galaxy Space has more or less completed their “superfactory” with a planned production capacity of some 500 satellites per year.

Interior of Commsat Factory in Tangshan

In the case of all three of these companies, there is a clear connection to LEO broadband satellites. Commsat received funding from the China Internet Investment Fund using language related to satellite internet. In early 2022 Galaxy Space launched 6x LEO communications satellites and have since used them for a variety of tests with different potential end users.

CASIC has been less clear about satellite internet ambitions, but has launched at least one LEO comms satellite, and is believed to have played a role in the batch manufacturing of the 6x Tianmu satellites launched over 2023, indicating an apparent capability at batch manufacturing.

All these manufacturers are in addition to the usual suspects, notably CAST (which has been building a batch satellite factory in Tianjin for several years), the Chinese Academy of Sciences Shanghai Engineering Center for Microsatellites (capable of building some dozens of satellites per year), and SAST (also capable of manufacturing some tens of satellites per year).
So what to expect in 2023 and beyond?

Overall, it seems probable that in 2023, we will see the launch of more batches of LEO comms satellites from China. Keeping in mind that in reality, the first such batch was launched in early 2022 by Galaxy Space, we should expect to see perhaps a few dozen LEO comms satellites launched by China during 2023.

These first satellites will likely serve a similar purpose to the 6x satellites launched last year by Galaxy Space—R&D, application testing, and establishing on-orbit heritage. As the inevitable kinks get ironed out sometime in 2024 or 2025, we might start to see China deploy LEO broadband satellites en masse, either favoring a small number of suppliers that prove themselves capable over 2023/2024, or sharing the wealth and trying to integrate satellites from a larger supply chain.

Either way, the table has been set for the systematic deployment of a large (thousands of satellites) LEO communications constellation from China sometime in the next ~5 years. While a few possible heavy outlier scenarios might see China scrap the project (a Starlink bankruptcy and project abandonment, for example), it seems that the question of a Chinese response to Starlink is more of a question of when, rather than if, and that the when might well be now.

Blaine Curcio

Blaine Curcio is the leading Chinese space industry analyst, having been based in Greater China since 2011, and having been working in the space and satcom sector since 2010. He is founder of Hong Kong-based Orbital Gateway Consulting, a research and consulting firm focused on the Chinese space sector, and is Affiliate Senior Consultant at Euroconsult, a leading space industry consulting firm.