China’s suborbital space tourism ambitions grow as two companies look to challenge Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic – Parabolic Arc

CAS space crewed the suborbital vehicle in flight. (Credit: CAS Space)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Two Chinese companies – CAS Space and Space Transportation – are pursuing the suborbital tourism market, with the former closely replicating Blue Origin’s fully reusable New Shepard vehicle and the latter developing a winged vehicle that could be adapted for hypersonic point-to-point travel. Places on Earth.

CAS Space, aka, Guangzhou Zhongke Aerospace Exploration Technology Co., Ltd., is developing a single-stage reusable rocket that descends under three parachutes with a landing capsule under its own power.

The CAS space vehicle, designated ZK-6, will be powered by five Xuanyuan rocket engines, while New Shepard has a single BE-3 engine. The ZK-6 will have seven seats for passengers and four windows. The new Shepard has room for six people, each with their own window to look out over Earth and into space.

CAS Space plans to conduct initial uncrewed flight tests of the vehicle in 2023, a delay from earlier plans to fly this year. Commercial service will follow after the completion of the flight test program.

CAS space suborbital vehicle on launch pad. (Credit: CAS Space)

Last month, the company announced a strategic cooperation framework agreement with China Tourism Group Travel Service Company (CTS Travel) to work together on the development of the space tourism market. CTS Travel is a wholly owned subsidiary of China Tourism Group with over 3,000 branches nationwide and 60 branches in 28 countries and overseas.

CAS Space is a commercial spinoff of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which partially owns the company. The ZK-6 is part of a family of rockets designed by the company to serve the suborbital and small- and medium-lift launch markets. On July 27, the company launched six spacecraft into orbit on the maiden flight of its ZK-1A (Lijian-1) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Tianxing Hypersonic Vehicle (Credit: Space Transportation)

on wings and engines

Space Transportation, aka, Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology, is making progress with its own program. The company said on its website that it has conducted six test flights this year as part of its Tianxing program to develop suborbital and hypersonic vehicles. The launches were split evenly between the Tianxing I and Tianxing II rockets.

The goal of space transportation is to develop a suborbital spaceplane capable of carrying tourists on suborbital flights. The wing system is very different from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, which is currently in flight testing.

Tianxing Suborbital Spaceplane and Hypersonic Transport Vehicle Development Plan. (Credit: Space Transportation)

A large space transport vehicle would be a high-speed transport that would fly between distant locations on Earth in less than two hours. The image below shows the development of the planned test vehicles.

The company released very little information about the six launches it conducted this year. It is also unclear where the flights took place, although Wikipedia indicates that they may have been operated from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Space Transportation has published the following development schedule:

2019-2022: Technology validation through flight testing;
2023: Flight test of suborbital space tourism prototype;
2025: Crewed flight of space tourism vehicle;
2028: Flight test of global hypersonic vehicle prototype; and
2030: Completion of a full-scale global hypersonic vehicle.

Tianxing hypersonic vehicle flight profile. (Credit: Space Transportation)

Space Transportation has raised $60.6 million in three funding rounds. The company announced a Series A round in August 2021 that totaled $46.3 million. Matrix Partners China and Shanghai Guoseng Group led the round with new investors Wuyufeng Capital, Xiamen Feiyu Yinghang and Shanghai Huygens.

Previous investors Source Code Capital, Volcanic Stone Capital, Keke Li Venture Capital, Yuanhe Yuandian, and Zhencheng Investment also contributed to the Series A round. The five investors were part of a $14.3 million seed round that was announced in December 2019.

Source Capital led the angel round which was announced in March 2019.

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