Despite U.S. Export Restrictions, Market for Commercialized Chinese Kuaizhou-11 Rocket Looks Strong

by Bill Ostrove, Space Systems Analyst, Forecast International.

China plans to start launching commercial payloads on its Kuaizhou-11 launch vehicle in 2017. The Kuaizhou-11, which first launched in 2013, is a solid-fuel rocket developed by China Sanjiang Space Group (CSSG). It was originally developed as a quick-reaction launch vehicle that could carry lightweight payloads into low-Earth orbit (LEO) with short notice.

It is not exactly clear what the relationship will be between the Chinese government and the organization that operates the Kuaizhou-11. CSSG is part of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), a state-owned and -funded enterprise. It provides competition to China’s primary launch vehicle development company, known as China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC), and launch vehicle marketing company, China Great Wall Industry Corp.[i]

The situation becomes less clear because Chinese media report that the Kuaizhou-11 will be marketed by an entirely commercial company.[ii] Typically, commercial companies raise financing from private investors or through profits from their own operations. If the Kuaizhou-11 is developed and marketed by a state-owned entity, it will not be considered a commercial enterprise. It is possible that the Chinese government plans to spin off Kuaizhou-11 operations into a commercial company.

The debate between commercial or government operations is not as important as the potential demand for the vehicle. Many space operations around the world blur the line between commercial and government-owned enterprises. For example, India’s PSLV carrier rocket is government-owned, but has strong demand within the commercial market.

U.S. export controls will negatively impact the commercial success of the Kuaizhou-11. While the U.S. periodically reviews its so-called International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) laws, American companies are not allowed to export satellites or satellite components to China. This includes shipping American-made components to China for launch.[iii] Because American companies play such a major role in the international satellite market, this essentially blocks a large swath of satellites from launching in China.

For a time, French satellite builder Thales Alenia Space marketed commercial satellites that included no components on the U.S. ITAR list, meaning they could be carried into space by Chinese launch vehicles. However, the difficulty in obtaining those components forced the company to abandon the market, demonstrating the importance of the U.S. for any successful commercial satellite venture.[iv]

Even if it does not have access to the American market, the Kuaizhou-11 could still find success in the launch market. The rise in popularity of small satellites is creating new opportunities for launch providers. The Kuaizhou-11 will be competitively priced as well, with a planned cost of $10 million to carry a 1,000-kilogram payload to a 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.[v]

LauncherOne Rocket Lab Electron Firefly Alpha Kuaizhou-11 cost comparison

A launch cost of $10,000 per kilogram compares extremely favorably with those of other light launch vehicles under development. Even the Firefly Alpha’s relatively cheap launch costs are double that of the Kuaizhou-11’s, and costs for U.S.-developed light launch vehicles only go up from there.

Additionally, China’s space industry remains strong. In 2015, 19 Chinese launch vehicles carried 45 payloads into orbit. The same revolution in small satellites that Western space powers are experiencing is beginning to spread to China. On September 19, a Long March 6 carried 20 small satellites into orbit. Launches of these “SmallSats” will continue. In October 2015, a Chinese investment fund and a Russian satellite company announced plans to build a large remote sensing satellite network that will provide data on large urban centers and trade routes between China and other countries.[vi]

Low costs, a strong domestic market, and the growing popularity of small satellites will drive Kuaizhou-11 production going forward. Despite being largely closed off to carrying Western-built satellites, the Kuaizhou-11 will serve China’s domestic market. Also, the vehicle could potentially become popular with foreign countries that purchase satellites from China’s growing space industry.

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