China’s new space city poised for quick-fire launches

A new Chinese cosmodrome in the eastern port city of Ningbo has been cleared to launch satellites in five years, with “quick-fire” lift-offs expected at a hitherto unseen pace. 

Comparisons are already being made to America’s John F Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida for their similarly advantageous coastal positions, favorable blast-off latitudes and other geographical attributes. 

The new Ningbo spaceport, the nation’s fifth such facility, will give a crucial lift to Beijing’s new space programs as its rivalry with the United States reaches space. The spaceport is said to be tailor-made for Chinese commercial aerospace manufacturers and service providers to one day wrest business and foreign orders from US rivals. 

The site in Ningbo’s Xiangshan county, about 2.5 hours by car from Shanghai, will sprawl over 67 square kilometers, according to images in an agreement between the local government and the state-owned China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp (CASIC).

The main thrust of the deal is to speed up the first tranche of 20 billion yuan (US$3.1 billion) in spending on the construction of launch pads, main vehicle assembly building, control centers and related amenities like a tourist center cum planetarium. 

Xinhua revealed in April that the center’s design and logistical support parameters had been carefully determined to ensure ample and expandable capacity for as many as 100 launches per year, mostly for commercial satellites, especially when such flights are on hiatus across some existing sites. 

China has four launch centers scattered in the country’s western and southern regions, namely Xichang, Jiuquan and Taiyuan in western Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi provinces as well as Wenchang, along the coast of the southern tropical resort island of Hainan.

CASIC vice president Dou Xiaoyu told reporters during this year’s parliamentary session in Beijing that China was on the cusp of a major policy loosening and construction boom to set the nation’s commercial launch market alight, with as many as 1,000 satellites set to be put into orbit in the next ten years.

She warned at the time that decades-old facilities may limit the launches as the state-of-the-art Wenchang center is primarily reserved for manned and deep-space missions.  

Ningbo, a rich trade boomtown with the world’s third-busiest container port, stood out in Beijing’s selection of sites to host China’s commercial launch programs for at least the next two decades and possibly longer. 

Ningbo’s connecting infrastructure and proximity to the region’s bourgeoning engineering and aerospace sector are the site’s unique drawcards, according to local reports. Ningbo cadres say the center will be the world’s only one built on the immediate periphery of a densely populated urban conurbation, with high hopes that the spaceport can propel the city into ascendency as China’s “space city”, the reports said.  

Shanghai, Ningbo and their surrounding areas now boast a growing constellation of private satellite companies and suppliers as Beijing taps the affluent region’s pool of capital and manufacturers to jumpstart China’s commercial aerospace industry.

China’s largest private carmaker Geely, headquartered in Ningbo, is now spearheading the foray of cash-rich conglomerates into aerospace, satellite design and satellite launches that were previously the sole domain of state-owned enterprises and the Chinese military.

The manufacturing capabilities of Ningbo and neighboring Taizhou and Suzhou, particularly in electronic components and systems, should guarantee competitive costs and swift delivery when parts can be sourced a few hours’ drive from the launch site.

Geely said in February its satellite plant in Taizhou would churn out 500 navigation and communication satellites each year to guide its self-driving cars. 

CASIC experts also said, unlike existing centers deep in China’s inland backwater regions, rockets, satellites and other payloads can be easily transported to Ningbo’s site or even assembled onsite for swifter turnaround and more launches.

All told, the Ningbo site will facilitate a satellite launching spree as Chinese state-owned and private entities rush to fill the low earth orbit and other lower reaches of space before it reaches capacity. 

Ningbo Daily cited CASIC as saying that the first permanent structure at the new center, a final assembly test center, would be built and ready for a trial run by the end of July. Completion of the phase-one project and its maiden launch are slated for 2025. 

Details about how the center will be run, including whether CASIC will solely decide launch schedules and allocate slots or if private users will have more latitude, are still unclear. 

Wu Ji, a senior researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Space Science Center, told Xinhua that Beijing should pull down legal barriers to nurture the rise of commercial players and scrap restrictions on frequency and orbit allocation. He also said private players should have access to the trove of data gained in state-led space missions. 

Wu said private satellites and probes may also feed data and imagery back to contribute to national programs and that the sky’s the limit for collaboration between state and private sectors in space.