AMS Spring 2023

3D Printed Rocket Firm to Lead Reusable Rocket Market in China

6K SmarTech

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Carrier rocket developer Deep Blue Aerospace looks forward to becoming the only commercial rocket company in China to compete with SpaceX’s launch vehicle technology. After four years of developing its flagship Nebula-1 reusable liquid rocket, the company announced new milestones for a planned 2023 debut. This includes completing a ¥200 million ($31.5 million) Series A round in January 2022 led by Zhencheng Capital and conducting a 100-meter vertical recovery test (vertical takeoff, vertical landing, or VTVL). Like many of its counterparts, Deep Blue relies on 3D printing technology to curtail the part manufacturing process and reduce costs.

In the short term, the company intends to use the funds to continue developing its Nebula-1 liquid rocket, verify the rocket’s recyclable and reusable technology, and prepare for launch. However, eventually Deep Blue hopes to continue strengthening and upgrading its space technology, particularly its Thunder series engine, through 3D printing. Focusing on liquid recyclable technology and private supply chain support for critical components, Deep Blue has the opportunity to play a big role in China’s aerospace segment, which is worth over ¥1 trillion ($157 billion).

The first domestic liquid oxygen and kerosene rocket 100-meter vertical take-off and landing flight test was a complete success for Deep Blue Aerospace.

Deep Blue Aerospace’s first domestic liquid oxygen and kerosene rocket 100-meter vertical take-off and landing flight test. Image courtesy of Deep Blue Aerospace.

Headquartered in Nantong, a city on the coastal Chinese province of Jiangsu, Deep Blue plans to follow in the footsteps of SpaceX. By creating technology for orbit-level recoverable launch vehicles (similar to the Falcon 9), it foresees becoming a driving force for the country’s future space missions. In addition, the aim is to strengthen its technological leadership in the field of recyclable and reusable liquid rockets in China, actively explore the construction of a commercial rocket ecological chain, and strive to build aerospace and technology power.

Deep Blue Aerospace’s CEO Huo Liang pointed out that “recyclable launch vehicles are the pinnacle of contemporary human launch vehicle technology. Using reusable and multiplexing launch vehicles to build a next-generation aerospace round-trip transportation system is one of the keys for humanity to develop space resources and move to orbit.”

Reusable rockets drastically lower launch costs, speed up space travel, and open up access to orbit. Four years ago, SpaceX promised that a switch to reusable rockets would enable the company to cut its prices by as much as 30%. Then in 2020, Elon Musk tweeted that recovery and refurbishment of a booster is done for less than 10% of the price of a new booster while the payload reduction due to reusability of the booster and fairing is below 40%. SpaceX breaks even with two flights per booster and is “definitely ahead” with three, according to his tweet.

Even though recoverable launch vehicle technology is not achieved overnight, Deep Blue is working on it, and the recently completed Series A round will help. Moreover, as the only rocket company in China that targets recovery and reuse of liquid oxygen and kerosene vertical takeoff and landing, it could have a substantial commercial impact.

Deep Blue’s rocket engine manufacturing technology is also unique in China since 85% of its Thunder-5 engines are made with 3D printing technology. Acknowledged as the first variable thrust, kerosene-liquid oxygen, electric-pump-fed engine manufactured via 3D printing in China, the Thunder-5 design is a fantastic feat for the company. Just like other rocket manufacturers have discovered, Deep Blue quickly realized 3D printing could reduce part count and improve the engine’s working conditions. And since market suppliers of traditional engine manufacturing technology are limited, space companies can find more 3D printing service bureaus with a wide range of different additive manufacturing processes to choose from.

After completing the first vertical recovery flight test of the launch vehicle in July 2021, Deep Blue successfully achieved the 100-meter-level vertical recovery test again. Soon, it will test-run its fully 3D printed Thunder-20 grade liquid oxygen kerosene engine, which will power the Nebula-1 launch vehicle. If everything goes well, Deep Blue aspires to become a powerful ally to China’s national aerospace team, greatly reduce the rocket launch cost, and a champion for the space industry.

Commenting on Deep Blue’s present and future, Zhencheng Investment’s founding partner Li Jianwei said, “Deep Blue Aerospace is currently equivalent to SpaceX’s stage in 2013, a key turning point from non-consensus to consensus formation. Accurately benchmarking SpaceX, Deep Blue Aerospace has a clear and focused technical route, leading research and development progress, and an independent and controllable supply chain of core components. These are the main reasons for Zhencheng’s capital injection.”

With China’s space ecosystem thriving, it is no surprise that Deep Blue is making strides in the rocket manufacturing industry. Space companies have raised over ¥1 billion ($160 million) in funding in January alone. In addition, launch companies are driving investments through the roof. Aside from Deep Blue’s Series A round, competitors like Orienspace––a two-year-old private space launch enterprise––pulled in nearly ¥300 million ($47 million). Other examples include reusable methane-LOX rocket engine maker Jiuzhou Yunjian and high-tech enterprise iStar-Space Technology, each securing ¥100 million ($15.7 million) in new funding.

At this rate, China’s commercial companies working on space exploration technologies will continue to enjoy strong momentum, setting foot in areas that have been entirely state-dominated for decades. Aiming to become a promoter of the space transportation industry, Deep Space is optimistic about the future of its orbital launch vehicle. However, we’ll have to wait until 2023 to see if its rocket turns out to be “the next Falcon 9,” as the startup has described it.

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