Can China take on SpaceX with its own satellite constellation?

Allen Hsieh, Taipei; Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia 0

Source: Galaxy Space

In the wake of SpaceX's groundbreaking success with Starlink, China is gearing up to launch its own rendition of the satellite constellation, leveraging its formidable aerospace prowess and technological might.

China's longstanding commitment to aerospace technology, fueled by defense and military imperatives, has not only spurred domestic innovation but also positioned the nation as a global powerhouse in satellite launches, second only to the United States.

With a penchant for technological catch-up through substantial capital and tech investments, China's track record spans industries from electric vehicles to telecommunications.

Yet, insiders in Taiwan's satellite sector caution that the economics of commercial satellite ventures are challenging. Even SpaceX's Starlink, hailed for its robustness, took five years after its 2018 launch to break even.

Enter the China Satellite Network Group (CSNG), founded in 2021 with ambitions to roll out a 13,000-strong satellite constellation. Boasting a team of industry veterans from Chinese enterprises, CSNG aims to forge an integrated domestic satellite ecosystem, granting China unparalleled autonomy in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite communications.

Parallel to CSNG's endeavors, the Shanghai-backed "G60 Starlink" initiative kicked off in 2023. It plans a fleet of 12,000 LEO satellites, with its manufacturing hub already up and running.

According to sources, these state-linked satellite constellation projects are China's strategic response to America's Starlink ambitions.

Industry watchers argue that China's edge lies in its long-term focus on aerospace and defense tech, nurtured under state-driven policies that have fostered a robust aerospace supply chain. Companies like Galaxy Space, capable of mass-producing satellites, are setting their sights on Starlink, vowing to ramp up production efficiency.

China's colossal consumer market offers another advantage. As brands like Huawei and Honor integrate satellite communication capabilities into their smartphones, the domestic appetite for satellite services is primed to soar. While geopolitical headwinds may curtail China's global satellite ambitions, its vast domestic market and network of allied nations provide a solid foundation.

Yet, the road ahead is fraught with challenges. Building a satellite constellation is capital-intensive, and achieving profitability in a constrained market will test China's resolve. The key will be expanding into untapped markets and crafting a sustainable business model post-launch.

Technologically speaking, China's satellite constellation still trails Starlink in scale, coverage, and communication quality. SpaceX's competitive edge, bolstered by its world-leading rocket launch services, presents a formidable hurdle.

As the global space race intensifies – with over 6,000 Starlink satellites already in orbit – China faces the "first-come, first-served" licensing process. Failure to keep pace could marginalize China in space, making this ambitious venture a high-stakes gamble.