China has an expanding satellite launch program and for three years in a row has carried out more satellite launchers than any other nation. Despite that China has a problem; launcher reliability. Five percent of Chinese launches fail, more than twice the rate of American launchers. Worse, the Chinese solution for this; developing improved models of its main launcher, the Long March rocket, are progressing slower than expected.
At the same time the United States has developed SpaceX, a new launcher technology that is a lot cheaper and as reliable as older American launchers. China says it will match the SpaceX tech but so far there has been no visible progress in that area. Despite all that, since 2018 China has developed more capability to put satellites into orbit than anyone else. That edge is also deceptive because the Americans, and other Western satellite manufacturers, are switching to a new satellite tech that employs more smaller satellites to do the work of larger ones. While the SpaceX family of launchers can also put conventional large satellites into orbit, SpaceX is specializing in putting lots more smaller satellites with each launch. While China has a good record in using older launcher designs, during that period new American launcher and satellite designs are forcing China to adapt or to lose a lot of their foreign launch customers and paying more to launch their own satellites.
China thought they were safe using an old, proven and increasingly reliable tech. Their Long March type rockets have been in use since 1970 and, by late 2020 have been used for 352 launches with 95 percent successful. The five percent failure rate is used to determine what satellite owners pay for insurance on their multi-million-dollar satellites. One thing the insurance does not cover is the lost time. The satellite owner has to spend several years building a replacement satellite and that delay often causes other losses because the lost satellite has not been delivering services customers expected to be available. This explains the need for a lower failure rate. China offers lower prices for its launches and that may help with the insurance costs but it does nothing for customer problems with replacing their satellite and placating disappointed customers.
China has yet to fully explain the delays and failures encountered in developing the latest Long March 5 rocket, which is supposed to be cheaper and more reliable. So far, the Long March 5 is neither. Long March rockets are mainly used for commercial launches and that is big business that China is seeking to dominate long-term.
The Long March 4C has been in service since 2006 and has had a failure rate of over five percent. The Long March 5s were initially developed for carrying the heaviest loads; 25 tons low orbit or 14 tons high orbit. The Long March 5 is the heaviest launcher (at 867 tons) China has made it first flight in 2016. Since then it has launched five times and had one failure. It is unclear if that one failure was caused by a fundamental flaw in the rocket design. That has slowed down the use of Long March 5. That is a problem because Long March is the only rocket that can lift certain cargoes, like portions of the new Chinese space station or major space missions, like the upcoming second Chinese mission to put robot exploration vehicles on the moon.
The Long March series has always been China's main satellite launcher and that is largely because it is based on Russian designs. That means it is simple, cheap and reliable. This has made China a major player in the satellite launching business where minimum levels of reliability are mandatory. China can handle the mandatory requirements and competes on price. The U.S. Space Shuttle was retired because it was the most expensive way to get stuff into orbit. Satellites sent up via the Space Shuttle cost $25 million a ton put in orbit. The Russians and Chinese will do it for under $10 million a ton. But insurance can more than double that cost if there have been a number of recent failures with Russian and Chinese boosters. This keeps more reliable American and European boosters in business.
The Space Shuttle failure rate was two percent, as were most Western satellite launchers. While the Russians are also having problems with their satellite launchers, that’s because the Russian government has less money to invest in its space program or satellite launchers in general. In addition, Russia has been losing skilled personnel (from manufacturing workers to rocket scientists) since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. In the same time period China has been increasing the quantity and quality of personnel as its space and satellite launcher programs grew enormously. China also pays better, for the same skills, than Russia. Whatever problems China is having with the Long March, they are much better able to deal with than the Russians who suffer from a growing list of failures in that area and defense manufacturing in general.
The Long March 3 and 4 have been doing most of the Chinese commercial launches since the 1980s. Currently the largest Long March 3 model weighs over 400 tons and can put 12 tons in low earth orbit and 5.5 tons in a high one (geostationary transfer orbit). The Chinese took their time to perfect Long March, requiring 28 years to make the first fifty launches, and nine years for the next fifty. So far, Long March has carried out over 330 successful launches.
While military satellites get more media attention, the real business of space, and where the Chinese put most of their efforts, is in commercial satellites. The Chinese have noted that since the 1980s space satellites have gone from big business to huge business. By 2012 there were about 2,000 active satellites in orbit, and nearly half of them were American. The number of satellites has been going down a bit since then because individual satellites last longer and can do more. It is expected that the number of satellites will now start to rise rapidly because of the popularity of mini-satellites (under 100 kg/220 pounds). Some of these mini-sats are much smaller (under ten kg) and still useful. In some cases, dozens of mini-sats are put into orbit by one launcher.
Since 2001 satellite industry revenues more than doubled, and are now nearly $300 billion a year. The cost of the satellites is less than ten percent of annual satellite revenues. About four percent of the money comes from launching all those satellites and 36 percent of those launches are military. The U.S. has about a third of the launch business, mainly because of the requirement that U.S. classified satellites be launched by American rockets. About half the satellite launches (and two-thirds of the satellites) were for communications, which generates the most income (mostly for TV, followed by data). The U.S. remains the major manufacturer of commercial satellites, with over half of the market. China sees opportunity in all this and has come a long way in a short time to take advantage of it. Russia and the United States have both been using retired ICBMs as cheap satellite launchers and that started with older liquid fuel models. China does not have many older liquid fuel ICBMs and has concentrated on developing more reliable and cheaper solid fuel rockets. This is paying off. Moreover, China will sell launch service to just about anyone who can pay, no questions asked.
Space satellites are a relatively new thing. In 1957 the Russian Sputnik was the first satellite ever put in orbit. The U.S. followed in 1958. Since then, ten other nations have done the same. France launched its first satellite in 1965, Japan and China in 1970, Britain in 1971 and India in 1980. Israel launched its first satellite in 1988. Ukraine did so in 1995. Iran claims to have put a satellite in orbit, but there is no conclusive proof. North Korea put a dead (non-responsive) satellite up in December 2012 and South Korea followed with a successful launch of a very active satellite a month later.
In 2015 China predicted that it would be launching 30 satellites a year and accounting for over a quarter of the worldwide launch capability. That prediction proved to be quite accurate. All this momentum has been the result of three decades of effort and an enormous spurt of activity since 2010. In the two decades after 1990 China carried out 30 commercial satellite launches, putting 36 satellites in orbit. Now China puts that many satellites up in about a year.
In late 2015 China successfully tested the latest version of its Long March satellite launcher; Long March 6 (LM 6). This version is optimized for putting multiple small satellites in orbit on the same mission and on short notice. The test launch put twenty small scientific satellites into orbit. LM 6 is a 103-ton liquid fueled rocket that can put a ton of payload into a 700 kilometers high orbit. LM 6 can operate from a standard satellite launch facility or from a TEL (transporter erector launcher) vehicle (which is basically a slightly larger trailer similar to those used for hauling tanks). LM 6 was also designed to be made ready for launch quickly (six days or so) giving it a military capability. That means if China has to get a surveillance or communications satellite in orbit quickly, LM 6 is the solution. But since 2015 the Long March 6 has launched only four times and the unexpected success of SpaceX has caused China to reconsider the usefulness of LM 6. At the same time China is also developing small surveillance and communications satellites for rapid use for emergency launches. That gives China experience in developing cheaper, smaller satellites, which are more the future that anyone expected.