China conducts trio of orbital launches across two days

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Country conducts four classified missions over past week

HELSINKI — China launched eight classified remote sensing satellites across three launches in recent days, adding to the country’s development of reconnaissance capabilities.

A Long March 6 kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket lifted off from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, north China, at 7:50 p.m. Eastern on Sept. 26, carrying the Shiyan-16A and B, and Shiyan-17 satellites into orbit.

Launch success was confirmed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) within the hour. No images of the satellites were made available and were stated to be mainly used for purposes including “land survey, urban planning and disaster prevention and mitigation.”

A China Aerospace Studies Institute analysis published earlier this year suggests that Shiyan satellites play a role in the early stages in the development process of new space systems, including remote sensing.

Just over 48 hours before the Long March 6 launch, a Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket operated by Expace, a commercial spinoff from the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), lifted off from Taiyuan at 6:55 p.m. Eastern Sept. 24, carrying the Shiyan-14 and Shiyan-15 satellites. 

The Shiyan satellites were again stated to be “mainly used for land survey, urban planning and disaster prevention and mitigation,” according to Chinese press reports.

The Kuaizhou-1A is capable of carrying 200 kilograms of payload into a 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) and now launches from all three of China’s inland national spaceports.

The first launch took place in January 2017 and the rocket has now flown four successful flights since June, when it made a return-to-flight after suffering its second launch failure in December 2021.

The Kuaizhou-1A has yet to resume launches of spacecraft for a 80-satellite narrowband constellation named Xingyun for LEOBIT Technology, another entity owned by CASIC. 

Expace is developing a series of larger solid rockets and raised $237 million in June.

In between the above launches, at Xichang spaceport in southwest China, a Long March 2D hypergolic rocket launched a trio of classified Yaogan-36 satellites, lifting off at 7:38 a.m. Eastern Sept. 26 (1338 UTC). Neither CASC nor state media provided a description of the satellites in their releases.

Yaogan means “remote sensing” and generally receive generic descriptions in Chinese reports. Western analysts believe the overall Yaogan satellite series to be designed to provide a comprehensive military surveillance system, made of optical, radar and electronic reconnaissance capabilities.

Yaogan-36 A and B were made by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) in Beijing while the third satellite, C, was provided by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST).

China has already launched a number of groups of Yaogan-35 series satellites, with each set of triplets in orbits of roughly 500 by 495 kilometers with an inclination of 35 degrees, providing frequent revisits over areas of interest. 

Prior to the above launches, China launched a Long March 2D rocket at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. The rocket lifted off at 7:15 p.m. Eastern September 20 (2315 UTC) sending the Yunhai 1-03 satellite into a 775 x 780-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. 

Chinese state media reported that the satellite is “tasked with surveying atmospheric, marine and space environments, providing data to support disaster prevention and mitigation efforts, and carrying out scientific experiments.”

Yunhai series satellites are considered to be military meteorological satellites by some Western analysts.

The latest mission on Sept. 26 marked China’s 42nd launch of 2022. CASC is planning more than 50 launches across 2022 and is expected to launch the third and final Tiangong space station module next month.

Chinese companies including Expace, Galactic Energy, Landspace, iSpace and CAS Space are also conducting their own launches during the year.