Chinese commercial launch firm Expace raises $237 million

TALLINN, Estonia — Chinese launch service provider Expace has secured $237 million in B round funding, following last week’s return to flight of its Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket.

Expace, a subsidiary of giant state-owned missile and defense contractor China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), announced the funding round following a ceremony in Wuhan with local officials.

The funding follows an A round of $180 million in 2017 and surpasses the $200 million raised by Galactic Energy earlier this year, the previous apparent largest funding round for a Chinese commercial launch vehicle maker.

The development is part of a trend of Chinese state-owned entities developing a growing range of solid rockets. The pattern has been interpreted as a means to meet growing launch demands and contribute to the country’s wider strategy to boost its overall space capabilities.

China opened portions of its space sector to private capital with a late 2014 government decision and has since been providing policy and other means of support to commercial companies.

Expace says the funds will be used for research and development and improvement of its Kuaizhou solid launch vehicle series as well as developing key technologies for liquid propellant launchers, having previously announced it was developing a methane-liquid oxygen engine.

The capital expansion project was approved in January and seven unnamed investors joined the round. 

The announcement comes days after the Kuaizhou-1A light-lift solid rocket returned to flight. The rocket suffered a failure in December 2021.

The firm has sent 23 satellites into orbit on 13 successful Kuaizhou-1A flights since 2017. Two Kuaizhou-1A missions have ended in failure.

The larger Kuaizhou-11 rocket remains grounded after the loss of its test flight in 2020. It is unknown whether an explosion at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in October 2021 was related to the rocket. 

Expace is part of CASIC’s plans to develop a number of commercial projects, including launch, constellations and reusable spaceplane (separate from another initiative led by main space contractor CASC).

Expace activities are centered at the CASIC-led 68.8-square-kilometer Wuhan National Aerospace Industrial Base, which became fully operational in February 2021. It is said to be capable of assembling and testing 20 solid rockets and producing 240 small satellites each year. 

Expace Kuaizhou rockets are expected to launch an 80-satellite narrowband constellation named Xingyun. LEOBIT Technology, also based in the Wuhan cluster and owned by CASIC, will operate the constellation.

CASIC previously stated plans to construct a broadband constellation named Hongyun. The expectation is that Hongyun and other, similar constellation plans have been subsumed by a national plan for a 13,000-satellite megaconstellation.

Meanwhile ZeroG Lab, a Beijing-based developer of micro- and nanosatellites and components, recently raised $14.9 million to develop its Magpie (or Lingque) remote sensing constellation of up to 160 optical and radar satellites and continue to develop overseas business.

Chinese commercial remote sensing developments could be closely watched in the near future, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the role of commercial remote sensing.

The official newspaper of China’s military forces published a commentary in April noting that companies such as Maxar and Black Sky provided satellite imagery of Russian troop movements to Ukraine. 

The People’s Liberation Army Daily piece claims the U.S. has in recent years been “promoting the construction of so-called ‘space resilience’, attempting to blur the boundary between military and civilian spheres,” bringing commercial entities and the general public into the space arms race in order to strengthen its dominant position in space. 

As well as China building its Gaofen and Yaogan constellations, commercial remote sensing constellations are also being deployed. Jilin-1, being constructed by the Changchun-based Changguang Satellite Technology, a spinoff from an institute of the state-owned Chinese Academy of Sciences, now has 54 satellites on orbit following a May 4 launch.

Commercial companies and public-private partnerships are also developing synthetic aperture radar constellations.

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