Chinese carmaker adds satellites in Musk SpaceX territory

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A Chinese rocket launched a group of communications satellites produced by one of the country’s largest carmakers, boosting the nation’s efforts to catch up in low-Earth orbit — an area dominated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Eleven satellites made by Geespace, a subsidiary of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., lifted off aboard a Long March CZ-2C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province on Saturday at 7.37 a.m. local time, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

For Geespace, it’s the long-awaited second such launch following an initial batch of nine satellites it sent to orbit in mid-2022.

Geespace wants to deploy a network of satellites some 600 kilometers (373 miles) above the Earth that can one day link to driverless cars and support other features in Geely vehicles. The company also hopes they will be able to provide links for consumer electronics. As competition in China’s auto market heats up and space infrastructure improves, satellite communications are becoming another important selling point to consumers. 

“Right now, I might have satellite function and you don’t,” Geespace Chief Executive Officer Tony Wang said in an interview with Bloomberg News before the launch. “But in the future, everyone will be equipped with the feature, and also every car.”

Wang referred to two smartphones in Huawei Technologies Co.’s Mate series, which support satellite-enabled dialing and also connect to China’s Beidou satellite navigation system. Geespace’s satellite communication is now available in several of Geely group’s EVs, including the Zeekr 001 FR and 007, and the Galaxy E8.

China has made major strides in developing its space program, including landings on Mars and the far side of the moon, and has plans for a “rapid establishment” of a “massive” constellation in low-Earth orbit, the Global Times reported in late December. 

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However, state-owned enterprises so far have been slow in building that low-Earth orbit presence, and the Geely subsidiary is one of the only private-sector companies to try operating satellites there. SpaceX operates more than 5,300 satellites in low-Earth orbit and continues to launch dozens more every month.

This weekend’s launch came more than 18 months after Geespace deployed its first batch of satellites. The company now faces a tight schedule if it hopes to meet its goal of deploying the constellation’s 72-satellite first phase by next year.

“To establish this satellite constellation, we need to set up the network, on-the-ground infrastructure and also push forward the commercialization of cloud service,” Wang said. “It is a lot of pressure.”

The group’s billionaire founder and Chairman — Li Shufu — owns almost 10% of Mercedes-Benz Group AG, and Geely owns stakes in other foreign automakers such as Volvo AB and Lotus Technology Inc. Li also picked Geespace’s Chinese name, which means a path in time and space.

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Geely was China’s third-largest auto exporter last year, behind only SAIC Motor Corp. and Chery Automobile Co. Geespace plans to one day offer its service globally, Wang said, “to provide real-time satellite communication anywhere in the world except the north and south poles.”

In 2021, Geespace completed the construction of a factory in the eastern Chinese city of Taizhou that’s capable of producing 500 satellites a year. The company has sold dozens of those satellites to Chinese startups, universities and others involved in space, Wang said. 

“The next race for the EV sector is self driving and the Internet of Things service. Telecommunications infrastructure is also moving from 5G to 6G. One of its key features is the wide use of satellite communications and navigations network,” Wang said. “We think the demand and the size for this market will reach an inflection point very soon.”

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