China continues intense activity with environment, navigation satellite launches

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HELSINKI — China launched a new meteorological satellite from Jiuquan late Sept. 24, adding to a series of recent government and commercial missions.

The Yunhai-1 (02) satellite launched from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert atop a Long March 2D hypergolic rocket at 8:54 p.m. Eastern Tuesday, making it Chinese five launches in under a month.

The new Yunhai-1 series of satellites will be used mainly used for “detecting the atmospheric and marine environment and space environment, as well as disaster control and other scientific experiments”, according to state media.

The satellites were developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC). 

CASC, the state-owned main contractor for Chinese space programs, stated in January that it aimed to carry out over 30 launches during 2019. The second half of the calendar year typically sees the majority of Chinese launch activity.

The Tuesday mission took the Chinese orbital launch tally for the year to 20, including a failed Long March 4C launch. That number also includes one failed private launch and the first Chinese private launch to reach orbit.

Liftoff despite prior earthquake

A Long March 3B lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, southwestern China, Sept. 22, despite a nearby 3.5 magnitude earthquake just over a day prior.

The launch used a Yuanzheng-1 upper stage to insert two Beidou navigation and positioning satellites into medium Earth orbits (MEO). 

A piece of a rocket engine, apparently resulting from the launch, was found downrange and posted on Chinese social media.

This was the tenth launch of pairs of Beidou satellites to MEO, as China pushes to complete its own answer to the U.S. GPS. 

Further Beidou launches, to MEO and inclined geosynchronous orbits, are expected before the end of 2019. China aims to complete the 35-satellite Beidou constellation—which is named after the Big Dipper asterism—in the first half of 2020.

The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, located on Hainan island, also participated in the launch activities, according to reports.

Wenchang hosts launches of China’s new, large cryogenic launch vehicles. The exercises may indicate ongoing ground preparations for the return-to-flight of the Long March 5, which could launch before the end of 2019

The Long March 5 is required for major projects, including the Chinese Space Station and upcoming lunar and Mars missions. It has been grounded since a launch failure in July 2017.

Remote sensing, experimental polar, deorbit missions

Earlier this month a solid propellant Long March 11 carried five Zhuhai-1 remote sensing satellites into roughly 500-kilometer-altitude Sun synchronous orbits.

The four hyperspectral and one video satellites are part of the development of the Zhuhai-1 commercial remote sensing constellation planned by Zhuhai Orbita Aerospace Science and Technology Co. Ltd. 

The launch took place at 02:42 a.m. Eastern Sept. 19 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, and saw stage wreckage fall to Earth in Myanmar.

Sept. 11 saw the return to action of the Long March 4 series following a May failure. Carrying the Ziyuan-1 (02) remote sensing satellite, the launch left wreckage downrange.

Also aboard was the BNU-1 (Jingshi-1) small, experimental polar observation satellite from Beijing Normal University, and Taurus-1 (Jinniuzuo-1) a 3U CubeSat developed by Shanghai Aerospace Science and Technology Co., Ltd., also known as ASES Space. The latter carries a 2.5-square-meter deployable sail for deorbit tests for debris mitigation.

Gravitational wave detection

A commercial Kuaizhou-1A launch Aug. 30 carried two payloads into orbit. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has now revealed that the satellite initially designated KX-09 is named Taiji-1. Furthermore the small  has completed first-stage on-orbit experiments for space-based gravitational wave detection. 

Taiji-1 carried out on-orbit space laser interference measurements and will be joined in the coming years by two further satellites. 

The trio will aim to detect gravitational waves, described as “ripples” in space-time, caused by extremely violent events. These include merging black holes, colliding binary stars and supernovae.