HELSINKI — China sent an undisclosed number of satellites into orbit Thursday to test satellite internet technologies.

A Long March 2D rocket using a Yuanzheng-3 upper stage lifted off at 5:00 a.m. Eastern (1000 UTC) Nov. 23 from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., (CASC), only announced the nature of the payload when it declared the launch successful.

No details of the launch payloads were revealed. Xinhua tersely described the launch as carrying a single “experiment satellite for satellite internet technologies.”

A launch statement from the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) however suggests that separate satellites were developed by SAST and the Innovation Academy for Microsatellites (IAMCAS) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) respectively.

Space object tracking from the U.S. Space Force’s space domain awareness teams will later reveal the number of objects associated with the launch that have been cataloged in orbit.

A pair of satellites under the same name launched from Jiuquan spaceport July 9. That launch used a Long March 2C rocket with a YZ-1S upper stage. Xinhua again characterized the launch as a single satellite, yet two entered orbit.

The most likely application for the satellites is testing for China’s national satellite internet megaconstellation project, named Guowang. 

The project envisions placing 13,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, partly in response to Starlink and other planned LEO megaconstellations. SpaceX has launched 5,000 Starlink satellites since 2019 and is seeking international approvals which could see it expand to 40,000 Starlinks in orbit.

IAMCAS and the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), another major subsidiary of CASC, were previously understood to be two entities contracted to manufacture satellites for Guowang.

CASC had stated earlier in the year that it intended to begin launching batches of satellites for Guowang. This would potentially be using a Long March 5B rocket modified to use a Yuanzheng-2 upper stage. The Long March 8 is also being considered for high-density launches of satellites for Guowang. Chinese commercial launch actors say they are also vying for contracts related to the project.

A communications megaconstellation would not only provide telecommunications and internet coverage domestically, but also potentially position China as a provider of global public goods, a commercial competitor to other systems, and, among other things, provide military and government communications that would be hard to degrade.

China is also looking at building a space infrastructure system that would integrate communications with navigation and positioning and remote sensing.

Meanwhile the government of Shanghai has expressed backing for another broadband megaconstellation. That project would consist of an initial 1,296 satellites.

Thursday’s launch was China’s 54th of 2023. CASC stated early in the year it would aim to launch more than 60 times. It has so far completed 40 launches. Commercial actors have accounted for the other 14 orbital launches so far this year.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...