The Chinese private spaceflight company Galactic Energy has made the second flight of its Ceres-1 rocket, carrying five satellites into orbit, including a satellite known as Golden Bauhinia-1-03. The launch took place at 04:12 UTC on Tuesday, December 7th (12:12 Beijing time) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.
The Ceres-1 is a four-stage rocket, using three solid-fueled stages with a hydrazine-fueled fourth stage to complete orbital insertion and refinement. Ceres-1 is capable of launching a payload of up 400 kilograms to low Earth orbit, or up to 230 kilograms into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 700 kilometers.
Also known as Gushenxing-1, Ceres-1 was developed by Galactic Energy, one of several Chinese companies currently fielding or testing small solid-fueled satellite launchers. The first Ceres-1 launch was conducted successfully on November 7, 2020, making Galactic Energy the second private Chinese company to launch a satellite into low Earth orbit.
The rocket’s maiden flight deployed the 50-kilogram Tianqi 11 satellite, also known as Scorpio-1, which was designed to test Internet of Things (IoT) communications from low Earth orbit. Small satellites to enable communications between IoT devices, such as household thermostats and security systems as well as medical and industrial equipment, are becoming an increasingly common payload for small satellite launchers as multiple operators look to test and build their own constellations.
Ceres-1 was named after the dwarf planet Ceres, symbolizing Galactic Energy’s eventual ambitions to mine asteroids for resources. Discovered in 1801 by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, Ceres would later become the first object to be designated an asteroid before being reclassified again as a dwarf planet in 2006.
While Galactic Energy appears to have developed their own series of solid motors, named Lightyear, other companies in their sector including i-Space are building their rockets using solid motors purchased from the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
These companies have also hired workers from China’s state industry, and have received support from the Chinese state as well as local governments. The Chinese government aims to ensure its commercial space sector complements, rather than competes, with its state-owned organizations. It is also not clear to what extent the Chinese government has ownership in many of the new companies.
Most of China’s small satellite launch providers are currently using small solid-fueled rockets like Ceres, although some companies including Galactic Energy and competitor Deep Blue are developing and testing liquid-fueled vehicles incorporating reusability. Galactic Energy is developing the Pallas-1 engine for its next-generation rocket, with the company claiming that it will be similar to Merlin engines built by American operator SpaceX.
Tuesday’s launch took place from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, located in the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia.
At liftoff, Ceres fired the solid-propellant Lightyear GS-1 motor powering its first stage. Capable of generating 534 kilonewtons (120,000 pounds) of thrust, it burns for the first 74 seconds of flight. After stage separation, the second stage’s GS-2 motor took over, firing for 70 seconds at 249 kN (56,000 lb) of thrust. Following another separation event, the third stage GS-3 fired for 69 seconds, generating a peak thrust of 133 kN (30,000 lb).
After Ceres-1’s three solid-fueled stages finished their burns, the fourth stage separated to begin its role in the mission, injecting its satellites into orbit. The liquid-fueled upper stage uses hydrazine propellant, allowing its burn time to be regulated to ensure a precise orbital insertion.
This mission was originally scheduled to fly the Fangzhou-2F satellite, also known as Ark-2F, which is being flown for the Bejing Aerospace Ark Technology Corporation. This company has been developing recoverable Ark satellites, designed to return to Earth intact at the end of their missions. This will allow them to carry equipment, experiments or items provided by individuals and other companies, which can be retrieved after the capsule lands. Details of any payloads or experiments aboard the Ark-2F mission have not been announced.
The main payload for this flight turns out to be the Golden Bauhinia-1-03 satellite, said to be developed by ZeroGLab based in Beijing, with the Hong-Kong Aviation Technology Group. This satellite is a technology demonstrator meant to test visible light imaging and remote sensing from low Earth orbit, and it follows earlier Golden Bauhinia-1-01 and 02 satellites that have been flown to orbit.
Other satellites flown on this mission that have been named are Tianjin University-1, Lize-1, and Baoshui as well as Golden Bauhinia-5.
Following on from Tuesday’s mission, Ceres-1 currently has at least one further confirmed mission on its books, with Galactic Energy taking reservations for additional flights. Galactic Energy has now joined SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit as private companies that have flown two or more successful orbital missions.
The Chinese private space sector, as well as the government space agency, have had a busy and eventful year in 2021, with the pace of missions and development of new rockets expected to continue over the coming years as China sets its sights on becoming the world’s preeminent space power.