New commercial launch site in China: Something big is brewing in Hainan

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New commercial launch site in China: Something big is brewing in Hainan

Construction of new commercial launch site in Hainan.

Image credit: Xinhua News Agency.

With all four of China’s launch sites all controlled by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and with very strict restrictions on access by foreigners or even Chinese civilians, it’s not easy being a commercial launch company in China seeking to access the existing, notoriously -tempered launch infrastructure. In addition to being politically complicated, Chinese launch pads were not designed for the regular launch of reusable liquid-propelled rockets, and their location relative to existing Chinese industrial bases is not ideal. Finally, existing launch sites in China are busy with state-owned launches and don’t have much incentive to go to great lengths to attract commercial launch companies. That’s why China is now working on new launch sites specifically geared towards business.

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In a surprisingly short amount of time, the emphasis on state-owned launches has begun to change, with at least two commercial launch sites being built. The first is the Oriental Spaceport in Yantai, Shandong province, which was built with the apparent support of the local Chinese Academy of Sciences and the provincial government. The second is the Hainan Commercial Space Launch Site, under construction adjacent to the existing Wenchang Space Launch Site in Hainan, an island province south of mainland China. While the Oriental Spaceport is an impressive project that will one day deserve a separate article, today we will focus on the second launch site, because something big is brewing in Hainan.

A background of Hainan

Before we delve into Hainan’s new commercial launch site, it’s important to provide some broader context on the venue. Hainan Island is a relatively underdeveloped province of China (GDP per capita is in the bottom 25% of provinces). Its location as an island has made the central government more willing to experiment with economic reform, and more recently, Hainan has become the seat of the Chinese 4th and the newest launch center, Wenchang Space Launch Site. Wenchang saw its first launch in June of 2016, and its location relatively close to the equator and close to the sea makes it China’s spot for the heaviest launches, including that of China’s space station, Tiangong.

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Wenchang has several logistical advantages, but two are the most obvious:

  • Coastal location. Already today, China ships the Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets from Tianjin to Hainan by sea, as both the production site and the launch site are coastal. In the long run, companies like CAS Space and GeeSpace plan to use their industrial bases in the coastal province of Guangdong and Zhejiang to ship to Hainan by sea.
  • Free Trade Area. In the short term, that probably means less, but Hainan’s status as an economically underdeveloped island makes it a prime location for economic reform and development programs. Its free trade zone status could mean that there could be preferential regulations for foreign joint ventures (JVs) in the future, which could allow foreign firms to set up operations near the associated launch infrastructure. At the very least, it should give the local government a little more leeway to come up with creative policies to attract businesses to Hainan.

What is actually being built in Hainan?

In addition to the existing PLA-controlled Wenchang launch center, a commercial launch site is under construction in Hainan. The current state-owned launch site in Wenchang has become a major hub for Chinese space tourism, with Hilton Hotels building a hotel within sight of the launch center, and Chinese space tourists making regular pilgrimages to Hainan to see the you launch from Wenchang. This cult following has built up ever since the Wenchang Space Launch Site began launches in 2016. More recently, activity has focused on the commercial launch site, construction of which began in mid-2022, with the The initial goal is to build a “landmark, market-oriented space launch site to further enhance the launch capability of China’s commercial and civilian launch vehicles,” according to the Hainan International Commercial Space Launch Company, which is building the spaceport. At the time, it was revealed that the development of the launch site was led by a JV involving the government of Hainan, CASC, CASIC and China SatNet, a major player in China’s space industry.

In short, Hainan is building a major commercial launch site alongside existing state structures, in a free trade zone, with many of the most blue chip investors and blue chip partners apparently enrolled. The project is, in other words, important, with great support from the highest levels. A February 2023 report by Hainan News gave updates on the commercial launch site, that there would be four launch pads: two for liquid-fueled rockets (including one for rockets using kerolox and one for those using metalox), and two for solid fuel rockets. The entire project represents an investment of approximately 4 billion (US$650 million) and construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2023. Joint training and testing will take place during the first quarter of 2024 and the first launch will take place during the first half of the year. Each launch pad will have a capacity to fire 16 rockets per year, and the launch site also includes rocket assembly and satellite manufacturing centers, hoping to vertically integrate a larger portion of the industrial base into the launch site.

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The commercial launch site in Hainan under construction. Image credit: CCTV.

What’s happening recently?

There have been many big events in Hainan recently. Firstly, in mid-May, we saw Wu Yitian, Chief Designer for CALT of Hainan International Commercial Launch Center confirm that the first launch of China SatNet/Guowang constellation will be from Hainan International Commercial Launch Center in H1 2024. Not only that, but Wu confirmed that the launch would be the first launch at the new launch site, ushering in a major project (the Hainan site) with the first launch of another perhaps even more important project (the SatNet constellation, commonly called “China’s answer to Starlink”). At present, there is no indication of how many satellites could be planned to launch, but it would likely involve batches of several dozen satellites.

Chart of rockets that can be launched from Hainan Commercial Launch Center. Image credit: Hainan Commercial News Official WeChat.

In a less sensational, but perhaps even more significant development, we saw an announcement in early May 2023 that the Hainan International Commercial Launch Center will be able to accommodate more than ten types of rockets, with the launch center plans to use a “3-flats” which means that the rocket is assembled and transported vertically to the pad, without the need for a Vehicle Assembly Building. In a graph published by Hainan News, we saw several variants of Galactic Energy’s Pallas-1 rocket, as well as several rockets from CASC. Such interoperability could be an attractive differentiator, with launch service providers being able to collaborate more efficiently with their launch site. It’s also a likely indicator that when the launch site enters commercial service in H1 2024, it will have a backlog of some launch service providers.

What does this move forward mean?

Ultimately, China seems serious about diversifying its launch infrastructure, and a commercial launch site in Hainan would have major implications domestically and in the international launch market. Very immediately, a successful commercial launch site in Hainan would create another credible option for Chinese commercial launch companies. Today, one of the major challenges faced by these players is access to launch sites and a successful commercial launch site would alleviate a major bottleneck as such.

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Going forward, an integrated space industrial base, possibly with AIT facilities for satellites and rockets and other upstream infrastructure, could make it easier for foreign customers to access Chinese manufacturing and launch services. This could also make Chinese suppliers more attractive, particularly if Hainan finds a “sweet spot” to balance regulatory concerns with industrial and commercial interests.

Either way, one thing that is clear in the near term is that something big is going on in Hainan. China’s space sector is growing, and one of the most critical levers they intend to exploit is the development of commercialized launch infrastructure. The long-term future of the Hainan Commercial Satellite Launch Center is unclear, but its launch pads could soon host launch services for a rocket manufacturer near you.

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