China’s Suborbital Space Tourism Ambitions Heat Up as Two Companies Seek to Challenge Blue Origin & Virgin Galactic

CAS Space crewed 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 copying 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 between distant locations on Earth.

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

CAS Space’s vehicle, designated ZK-6, will be powered by five Xuanyuan rocket engines whereas New Shepard has a single BE-3 engine. ZK-6 will have seven seats for passengers and four windows; New Shepard has room for six people who each have his own window to gaze out at the Earth and space.

CAS Space plans to conduct the vehicle’s initial uncrewed flight test in 2023, a delay from an earlier plan to fly this year. Commercial service will follow once the flight test program is completed.

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

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

CAS Space is a commercial spinoff of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which partially owns the company. ZK-6 is part of a family of rockets the company is 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 an Engine

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

Space Transportation’s goal is to develop a suborbital spaceplane capable of carrying tourists on suborbital flights. The winged system is very different from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, which is currently in flight test.

Tianxing suborbital spaceplane and hypersonic transport vehicle development plan. (Credit: Space Transportation)

A larger Space Transportation 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 evolution of the planned test vehicles.

The company released very little information about the six launches it conducted this year. It’s not even clear where the flights took place, although Wikipedia indicates they might have been conducted from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Space Transportation has published the following development schedule:

2019-2022: technology verifications through flight tests;
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 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 Guosheng Group led the round with new investors Wuyuefeng 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 an angel round that was announced in March 2019.