HELSINKI — China launched the first of a new “high orbit” internet satellite series Thursday, apparently to provide internet services to China and surrounding areas.

A Long March 3B/G rocket lifted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern China at 8:03 a.m. Eastern (1303 UTC) Feb. 29.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) announced launch success within an hour of liftoff. CASC’s statement revealed the previously undisclosed payload to be High orbit satellite internet-01 (Weixing Hulianwan Gaogui-01).

AIrspace closure notices revealed that a Long March 3B/G launch was planned from Xichang for Feb. 29, indicating that a payload was likely destined for geosynchronous transfer orbit. In Chinese, high orbit refers to orbits above low Earth orbit, rather than specifically to high Earth orbit (HEO).

Initial Chinese state media reports on the launch provided no details of the satellite. CASC revealed only that the satellite was developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), a major spacecraft maker.

China already operates a series of ChinaSat (Zhongxing) geostationary communications satellites, with CASC directly involved in the joint venture. ChinaSat-26, China’s first satellite providing more than 100 gigabits per second (Gbps), was launched in February last year.

State media Xinhua reported in November that a first high orbit internet satellite had been completed and would be used to provide coverage for the entirety of China and key areas along the “Belt and Road” initiative.

“In the future, China Satcom will promote the construction of satellites with larger, single-satellite capacity. It is expected that by the end of the “14th Five-Year Plan”, the total capacity of high-throughput communication satellites will exceed 500 Gbps,” Xinhua reported, referring to the period 2021-2025.

Notably China also has plans for two low Earth orbit satellite internet constellations. These are the national Guowang program and the Shanghai-backed G60 Starlink constellations. These projects will require a surge in launch rate and launch capacity and could provide contracts for China’s commercial launch service providers.

The launch was China’s 10th of 2024. CASC this week revealed that China will aim to conduct around 100 launches this year. CASC is targeting around 70 launches, with commercial launch entities planning roughly 30 further launches. 

Major missions include two crewed and two cargo missions to the Tiangong space station. The first half of the year will see the launch of the Queqiao-2 lunar relay satellite. That spacecraft will support Chang’e-6, a first-ever lunar far side sample return mission.

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...