Will China's satellite surge eclipse US space supremacy?

Annie Huang, Hong Kong; Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia 0

Credit: AFP

China's relentless push into space technology is setting the stage for a high-stakes competition with the United States. As the space race heats up, China's rapid advancements in low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite technology are increasingly putting pressure on America's long-held supremacy.

Boosted by robust government backing, China's satellite industry has seen a significant overhaul, with the supply chain undergoing a rigorous shakeout. This strategic shift is part of a broader national initiative that's spurring innovation across the board, from component manufacturers to software developers.

At this year's HKTDC Hong Kong Electronics Fair, while AI continues to dominate headlines, commercial satellites emerged as a major draw, underscoring their growing importance in the tech landscape.

Industry insiders at the fair highlighted China's ambitious goals set back in 2015. Driven by a vision to build a robust defense technology infrastructure, the government championed the fusion of military and civilian technologies, catalyzing a boom in the civilian satellite market. Since then, a wave of private enterprises has ventured into the satellite sector, spearheading the development of small commercial rockets and LEO satellites.

As China celebrates a decade in the commercial satellite arena, operators emphasize the sector's maturity. The current crop of players is battle-hardened and backed by solid government policies. It's not uncommon to see private enterprises with ties to official channels, a testament to the symbiotic relationship between the public and private sectors.

Take MinoSpace, for instance. Founded by Shufan Wu, a former chief engineer at the Engineering Center for Microsatellites of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the company has quickly made its mark. Since its inception in 2017, MinoSpace has successfully launched multiple satellites, including five commercial ones earlier this year in a single mission.

With 24 satellites currently in orbit, MinoSpace boasts several firsts under its belt, including China's first 0.5-meter resolution remote sensing satellite and the first commercial SAR satellite operating in both X and Ku bands.

Looking ahead, MinoSpace is on an expansion spree. With two factories in Beijing churning out 200kg-class LEO satellites at an annual rate of 60, the company is poised for growth. A new facility in Jiangsu is slated to be operational by 2026, targeting an annual production capacity of 100 satellites.

While AI continues to be a global tech darling, with China actively developing large-scale models, the spotlight at Beijing's Z-Park is shifting towards satellite applications. Galaxy Space, another prominent player, already has the capacity to produce hundreds of satellites, with several already in orbit, focusing primarily on LEO broadband communication satellites.

The momentum in China's commercial aerospace sector is palpable. Local governments, including Beijing, are stepping up their support with initiatives like the "Action Plan for Accelerating Commercial Aerospace Innovation and Development in Beijing (2024-2028)," aiming to propel local commercial satellite and rocket construction.

Despite the promising trajectory, challenges loom large. The market demand is yet to reach critical mass, and manufacturers grapple with scalability and cost-efficiency issues. For now, the aerospace arena remains a stronghold of state-owned enterprises, with private capital playing a supporting role. However, as China's satellite industry continues to soar, the balance of power in the global space race could be on the verge of a seismic shift.