Alibaba signs to explore one-hour rocket deliveries

Chinese space startup claims it has the tech to make it happen. Yeah, right

Alibaba's Taobao e-commerce platform is exploring one-hour delivery by – wait for it – rocket.

You read that correctly. Beijing-based startup Space Epoch used its WeChat account to reveal the plan on Sunday, detailing the 120m3 cargo cabin mounted atop its Yuanxingzhe 1 rocket. Taobao has reportedly confirmed the alliance is real – despite Space Epoch's post coming just a few hours before April 1.

The Yuanxingzhe 1 is yet to fly, but its liquid-fuelled engine has been tested and Space Epoch has simulated recovery of the reusable craft after a water landing. The craft has a diameter of four meters, and cargo carrying capacity of ten metric tons.

An animation on Space Epoch's WeChat post depicts a parcel being loaded onto a conveyor belt and loaded into a rocket, which takes off, reaches space, and requires around 25 minutes to travel from China's east coast to a location that looks like the city of Urumqi in the northwestern Xinjiang province.

The rocket lands in a silo, with its cargo compartment situated at the same level as a conveyor belt. The payload is emptied, then whisked into a van and delivered to a happy customer.

Just how much of that scenario is fanciful is not detailed.

The Register fancies most of it is. Rockets are loaded very carefully to ensure stability in flight and take days to prepare for launch. The idea that rockets will be available to launch parcels on a whim is lovely – but not currently practical.

Space Epoch claims its rocket can also carry a car-sized payload. That makes a little more sense, as the disposition and weight distribution of vehicles is well known – unlike that of a collection of various parcels and whatnots.

Prices are also absent from Space Epoch's post. The Register used SpaceX's rideshare cost calculator – which the Musky launch outfit offers to those who wish to launch a small satellite – to guesstimate, and it produced a fee of $4.99 million for its largest single possible payload of 831kg.

That's many multiples of the price of even the most exclusive cars. We shudder to contemplate the price of insurance on top of the launch fee.

Which leaves this looking a lot like a stunt. Especially given that drone delivery – which Amazon announced with great fanfare in 2013 – is yet to become mainstream.

Drones have, however, become a common way to deliver emergency supplies to remote areas. Perhaps Space Epoch and Taobao could make that happen.

Whatever the two cook up, Beijing will be pleased: the Chinese Communist Party has made fostering a commercial space sector a strategic and industrial priority. ®

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