China launches powerful Jielong-3 rocket, paves way for more commercial missions

BEIJING (Reuters) – A small but powerful Chinese rocket capable of sending payloads at competitive costs delivered nine satellites into orbit on Saturday, Chinese state media reported, in what is gearing up to be another busy year for Chinese commercial launches.

The Jielong-3, or Smart Dragon-3, blasted off from a floating barge off the coast of Yangjiang in southern Guangdong province. It was the third launch of the rocket, developed by China Rocket Co, a commercial offshoot of a state-owned launch vehicle manufacturer, since December 2022.

President Xi Jinping has called for the expansion of strategic industries including the commercial space sector, deemed key to building constellations of satellites for communications, remote sensing and navigation.

Also on Saturday, Chinese automaker Geely Holding Group launched 11 satellites to boost its capacity to provide more accurate navigation for autonomous vehicles.

Critical to the construction of commercial satellite networks is China’s ability to open more launch windows, expand rocket types to accommodate different payload sizes, lower launch costs, and increase the number of launch sites such as building more spaceports and using sea launch vessels.

Jielong-3 can carry a 1,500 kg (3,300 pounds) payload into a 500-km sun-synchronous orbit. China Rocket Co has previously said the rocket could carry over 20 satellites at a launch cost of under $10,000 per kg – a globally competitive rate for small-lift rockets.

The cost is similar to the launches of other Chinese small-lift rockets including the Long March 11, but their payload sizes are significantly smaller.

Jielong-3 is comparable to the powerful Lijian-1, which first flew in 2022.

Developed by CAS Space, a Guangzhou-headquartered commercial spinoff of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lijian-1 can also send a 1,500 kg payload to a 500-km sun-synchronous orbit.

Other commercial companies in the Chinese vehicle launch sector includes Galactic Energy, whose Ceres-1 rocket made its debut flight in November 2020.

Ceres-1 is capable of delivering a 300 kg payload to a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit.

Beijing-based Galactic Energy made at least seven Ceres-1 launches in 2023, up from four in 2020-2022.

Also in the fray is Landspace, whose launch of the Zhuque-2 in 2023 marked the world’s first successful payload delivery by a liquid oxygen-methane rocket and a breakthrough in China’s use of low-cost liquid propellants.

In the realm of larger rockets, Orienspace in January launched Gravity-1 from a ship off the coast of eastern Shandong province.

The rocket is capable of sending a payload of up to 6,500 kg into low-earth orbit, making it the most powerful launch vehicle developed by a private Chinese enterprise.

A small-lift rocket carries payloads of up to 2,000 kg, while medium ones deliver up to 20,000 kg and heavy rockets can easily carry in excess of 20,000 kg. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can lift up to 64,000 kg into orbit.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

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