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China increases investment in emerging private space industry

Chongqing Liangjiang Star rocket developed by China's first private rocket producer OneSpace is launched during its maiden flight at a test field in Northwestern China. Photo: Getty Images

China is upping bets on private space companies, leading among countries expanding market share in the nascent industry during the third quarter, according a report from Space Angels, an investing firm specializing in private space ventures.

Chinese space companies drew $69 million of investment in the third quarter, more than any other country in that time. This year has seen China already pour $217 million in space companies, nearly matching the $230 million invested in all of last year.

Of the $16.1 billion invested in private space companies and partnerships since 2009, China now represents 3 percent, with about half a billion dollars. That may not seem like much – but nearly all of China's investment has come since 2016.

"A few years ago, people suddenly started paying attention to the incredible progress [the Chinese] government was making," Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson told CNBC. "Now their market share of private investment in space has gone from 0 percent to 3 percent in just the last three years."

Chinese companies may be getting a recent boost but "the U.S. still has the lion's share" of the global space market, Anderson said. The U.S. represents 60 percent of that total historical investment in private space companies – although that's shrunk in the last few years.

In the hot sector of small rockets, in which companies are targeting lucrative small satellite launches, the U.S. has four functioning companies Anderson said: Rocket Lab, Vector, Virgin Orbit and Astra Space. While the former reached orbit in January, the latter three are each deep into rocket testing programs, with the suborbital and orbital test launches scheduled in the coming months.

"But there's also Gilmore Space in Australia and OneSpace in China, with four other Chinese small launch companies coming online," Anderson said. "The first Chinese investment was in 2014 with LinkSpace, but [China] only really started investing significantly in 2016."

LinkSpace received the earliest investment but has yet to send a rocket to space. The company has conducted launch and landing "hop" tests for its rocket but has otherwise remained quiet.

OneSpace became the first to launch a privately-developed Chinese rocket to orbit, reaching that mark on May 17, according to state Chinese agency Xinhua. The startup has drawn more than $74 million in investment, according to Crunchbase.

Another newcomer to the rocket industry is iSpace. The Chinese company launched a suborbital rocket in April but quickly followed it up with a milestone launch on Sept. 5, putting three small satellites into orbit.

LandSpace rounds out the quickly-advancing Chinese rocket companies. While LandSpace has yet to reach orbit, its rockets are the most advanced among China's private companies. The startup is also developing a liquid engine, the type of next-generation engine being developed by SpaceX and Blue Origin. LandSpace expects its first launch in the next month.

"It's really only launch companies they're investing in, which makes sense since access to space is a key enabler of other technologies," Anderson said of China.

$2 billion in space investments

Space companies have brought in just over $2 billion in private investment so far this year, according to Space Angels. With half of that investment coming in the first quarter, the third quarter makes it mark with the number of Series B venture capital rounds. Series B deals accounted for 33 percent of the deals in the third quarter, up from 18 percent in the second quarter – which Space Angels said "signifies the graduation of early-stage space companies."

Much of the third quarter investment went to satellite companies, which attracted over $370 million, Space Angels notes.

Space Angels' data tracks 1,388 private space companies since 1983, with 712 rounds of investment and 161 exits.

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