Chinese startup becomes first in history to reach orbit on first attempt

It took SpaceX four attempts to reach orbit with Falcon 1.
Chris Young
Tianlong-2 at launch.

Chinese private space firm Space Pioneer became the first startup to successfully reach orbit on its first attempt this past weekend, a report from SpaceNews reveals.

It also became the first Chinese company to reach orbit using liquid rocket propulsion. The company's rocket, Tianlong-2, lifted off from the Jiuquan launch facility in northwest China at 4:48 am. ET on Sunday, April 2.

Space Pioneer makes history by reaching orbit on the first attempt

Beijing-based Space Pioneer's Tianlong-2 rocket lifted a small satellite to a Sun-synchronous orbit. The company, officially called Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., became the first Chinese firm to fly a rocket using liquid propellant.

Tianlong-2 uses liquid oxygen kerosene, whereas China's space administration typically uses solid propellants made from fuel and oxidizers. Liquid propellants are better suited to reusability, one of Space Pioneer's ultimate goals.

Chinese startup becomes first in history to reach orbit on first attempt
Tianlong-2 just after launch.

The three-stage Tianlong-2 has a payload capacity of 2,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit (LEO) or 1,500 kg to a 500-kilometer-altitude sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). 

The Ai Taikong Kexue (“love space science”) satellite launched by Tianlong-2 was developed by Hunan Hangsheng Satellite Technology Co., Ltd, and it will test remote sensing capabilities in orbit.

Reaching orbit is notoriously difficult

To put Space Pioneer's achievement into perspective, it took SpaceX and Elon Musk four attempts to reach orbit. Musk has since gone on record stating that SpaceX would have gone bankrupt had the fourth launch attempt failed.

The SpaceX CEO has also stated that the company's next-generation Starship rocket has a roughly 50 percent chance of reaching orbit on its first attempt.

Last month, meanwhile, California-based Relativity Space performed a successful first launch, though it failed to reach orbit with its liquid-propellant 3D-printed rocket, Terran 1. An engine failure prevented Terran 1 from inserting itself into orbit, meaning Space Pioneer achieved the milestone of being the first startup to reach orbit on its first attempt last weekend.

Relativity Space did note, however, that reaching orbit would have been seen as a bonus, and it was happy with the data it garnered from that first launch of the world's first 3D-printed rocket.

What's next for Space Pioneer?

The launch on Sunday is another sign of China's rise as one of the world's big space powers. Space Pioneer was founded in 2018, and the company has secured 3 billion yuan ($438 million) in funding since that time, according to the SpaceNews report.

The next significant milestone for Space Pioneer will be the launch of its Tianlong-3 rocket, which will use a larger liquid propellant rocket with a reusable first stage. Tianlong-3 will be able to carry 15 tons of payload to low Earth orbit, and Space Pioneer hopes to launch it for the first time in 2024.

Meanwhile, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) recently finished constructing its Tiangong space station and performed the first in-situ detection of water from the lunar surface with its Chang'e-5 lunar probe last year.

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