China is taking more inspiration from the 1990s for space launch. It’s investing more into a floating launch platform off China’s northern coast, which is somewhat, and yet not really, like the Sea Launch platform operated by a U.S./Russian consortium starting in the mid-1990s (no longer--now it’s just Russia-owned). China already launched a rocket, a Chang Zheng-11 (CZ, or Long March), from the platform in mid-2020.
Update--It looks like the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology launched another CZ-11 early this morning from the floating platform. It deployed 9 small satellites.
In the case of Sea Launch, the consortium launched a rocket capable of lifting a lot of mass from the equator. The consortium’s rocket, a Ukrainian-manufactured Zenit variant, would gain a little bit of boost from the Earth’s spin. This boost would allow the Zenit to lift more mass to geosynchronous transfer orbit than a Zenit launched from Kazakhstan. It wasn’t, however, the most reliable rocket for Sea Launch to use.
What’s Different from Sea Launch?
China’s version of this floating platform is for a very different type of launch and orbit. Using the CZ-11 is a crucial indicator for the kinds of missions to be launched from it--as is the location that the launch platform will be floating in (the first/only launch was from the Yellow Sea--very far away from the equator). The platform’s location in the Yellow Sea indicates that the launches occurring from it will be for polar/sun-synchronous orbits, with the rocket heading south--just east of China’s coast.
The fact that China is using the CZ-11 means it intends to launch small satellites from the floating launch platform. The CZ-11 can lift about 500 kilograms of mass into polar orbit, which isn’t very much--unless it’s lifting small satellites. It’s also more like an ICBM in that it’s using a solid rocket motor for propulsion. In other words, it’s very dissimilar to Sea Launch’s Zenit, which could lift satellites with a mass of 6,000 kilograms to geosynchronous transfer orbit using rocket engines.
The CZ-11 usually launches from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC), located in China’s northern-middle tier. It may be that China is moving CZ-11 to a floating platform for a few reasons:
- Can it be done?
- Can it do so reliably?
- Does it make sense to do so?
The CZ-11 is probably one of the less expensive rockets in China’s space launch inventory. It’s also not very complicated nor that difficult to maintain when compared to a Long March 3 or 4. The fact that it can’t lift very much probably means the payloads on top are not so expensive, either. It might make sense, then, to test out the concept using the CZ-11 off a floating launch platform. Based on the latest launch, it looks like launching from a floating platform can be done.
This second successful launch may reinforce China’s engineers' decision about the apparent reliability of launching from a floating launch pad. Two launches aren't enough of a sample, but they are two more than the United States Air Force’s criteria to determine if the Delta IV Heavy was ready for National Security Space missions back in 2004. If there are enough customers for CZ-11 launches from the Yellow Sea, those will provide a better confidence sample as launches move ahead.
Whether it makes sense to do so, that depends. It could be China is attempting to cut down on the number of rocket stages falling on its citizens’ heads during a launch. It could also be that the small satellite operators are closer to Haiyang, where the floating platform is based, than JSLC. It may be that China moves on to launching larger rockets from other floating platforms after it gains experience from using one for CZ-11 launches.
While the floating launch platform seems straightforward, activities from a different tech sector in China raise the Australian space industry’s eyebrows.
Data On a Silver Platter
“How China's database targeted Australia's space industry” is an unusual article from The Australian Financial Review. It’s unusual in that it’s covering at least two topics--social media data aggregation by a Chinese company and the company’s data collection of specific figures in the Australian space industry.
The Chinese data aggregator is Zhenhua Data. The company has collected data of 2.4 million people worldwide, including 35,000 Australians (and 51,000 Americans). According to another AFR article, Zhenhua lists China’s People’s Liberation Army and Communist Party as its primary clients. That article notes:
“The company talks of waging "hybrid warfare" and manipulating reality via social media and views its mission as using big data for the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation".”--Australian Financial Review, Sept 14, 2020
Based on that statement, Zhenhua Data is absolutely a company with hostile intent working against the individuals and organizations targeted for data collection, on behalf of the Chinese government and military. Australia has reason to be concerned--especially since China sits so close to its doorstep.
While the number of people in Zhenhua’s database, 2.4 million, sounds like a lot, it seems relatively small compared to the total monthly users of, for example, Facebook, at 2.7 billion. But Facebook and other social media companies present a security problem, as they provide relatively easy access to user data. Zhenhua is scraping data from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and others to build its profiles of individuals its clients consider to be the most important people to focus on globally. According to the AFR article, some of those targeted folks in Zhenhua dossiers are explicitly working in Australia’s space industry.
Zhenhua’s database includes James Gilmour, the founder of Australian space launch startup Gilmour Space. The startup’s board members are also in the Chinese company’s database. Australian space industry advisors, such as Pamela Melroy, also seem to be targeted.
The implications of Zhenhua’s data aggregation are ominous. The company’s activities are the digital equivalent of scouting, identifying, and setting up a military “target list.” This list contains “coordinates” more accurate and personal than any GPS-guided missile. People have openly worried about the U.S. government using Facebook data against them, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard people worry about foreign governments doing that. Now there’s a foreign government targeting 51,000 Americans very accurately.
It would be interesting to know who those American space industry people are that Zhenhua has collected on. If there's any good news from this, it's that *only* 51,000 Americans were in this particular database.