Since 2019, Elon Musk and SpaceX have led the charge to create high broadband satellite internet services. As of May 2023, the Starlink constellation consisted of over 4,000 satellites operating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and roughly 1.5 million subscribers worldwide. Several competitors began launching constellations years before Starlink began, and several companies have emerged since. This includes HughesNet, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Kuiper Systems. But Starlink’s latest challenger could be its most fearsome yet: a company in China backed by the Beijing government!
On Sunday, July 9th, a prototype internet satellite was launched aboard a Long March 2C carrier rocket from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. The satellite has since entered a predetermined orbit, where it will conduct several tests to validate the broadband satellite technology. The long-term aim of the project is to create a constellation of 13,000 satellites code-named “Guo Wang,” – which loosely translates to “state network” in Mandarin – reflecting Beijing’s vision for a state-run share of the satellite internet market.
A lot has changed since the last Space Age. Unlike the days of Sputnik, Vostok, Mercury, and Apollo, the current era is not defined by two superpowers constantly vying for dominance and one-upmanship. More than ever, international cooperation is the name of the game, with space agencies coming together to advance common exploration and science goals. Similarly, there is the way the private space sector has become a major participant, providing everything from launch services and commercial payloads to satellite constellations and crews.
But in some ways, old habits die hard. Since the turn of the century, China has emerged as a major power in space, to the point of becoming a direct competitor with NASA’s human space programs. For the past few years, China has been developing a reusable autonomous spaceplane to compete with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). Known as Shenlong (“divine dragon”), this spaceplane recently concluded its second test flight after spending 276 days in orbit. Though the details are scant, the Chinese state media company Xinua declared the flight a breakthrough for the Chinese space program.