HELSINKI — China launched a new internet technology experiment satellite from a sea platform Tuesday, apparently continuing tests for a low Earth orbit megaconstellation.

The Jielong-3 (Smart Dragon-3) solid rocket lifted off from a mobile sea platform from waters off the coast of Yangjiang, Guangdong province, at 2:24 p.m. Eastern (1924 UTC) Dec. 5. Launch success was declared around two hours after liftoff. 

The launch confirmed new solid launch capabilities and longer-range sea launches, providing greater redundancy and flexibility for China’s access to space.

The internet test satellite was tracked by U.S. Space Force space domain awareness in a 904 x 922-kilometer altitude orbit inclined by 86 degrees. Details of the payload have not been disclosed. 

It is the third Chinese launch this year which has been carrying satellites described as testing satellite internet technologies. The previous missions were a Long March 2D launch from Xichang in November and a launch from Jiuquan in July.

China is planning the construction of a national satellite internet megaconstellation, named Guowang. The project envisions launching 13,000 satellites into low Earth orbit.

The Jielong-3 is a four-stage rocket that can carry 1,500 kilograms of payload into a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). 

China Rocket Co. Ltd., a commercial spinoff from CALT, a main launch vehicle manufacturing arm under the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), developed the Jielong-3. CASC is China’s main space contractor.

Jielong-3 has close similarities in terms of lift capacity, length and diameter (2.65 meters), payload fairing (3.35 meters) and mass at liftoff with the ZK-1A rocket. CAS Space, a commercial rocket arm of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, developed the ZK-1A.

The launch comes just under a year after the first, also from a mobile sea platform. The successful second launch marks the Jielong-3 becoming operational. China Rocket is now looking to ramp up production.

“The rocket assembly plant in its first phase of construction has an annual production of 10 solid-fuel rockets. After the completion of the second phase by the end of the year, it will have an annual production of 20 such rockets,” Jin Xin, chief director of the Jielong-3, told China Central Television. 

Jin also claimed the rocket can carry more than 20 satellites with a cost of no more than US$10,000 per kilogram.

Expanding launch capabilities

The launch also verified longer-range sea platform operations. The platform departed for launch from sea launch facilities near Haiyang in the eastern coastal province of Shandong, on the Yellow Sea. The launch took place in the South China Sea.

The Haiyang spaceport provides China with another option for accessing space, away from the country’s busy four main spaceports. It also provides flexibility and redundancy. 

Long March 11, Jielong-3 and commercial Ceres-1 rockets have so far launched from Haiyang.

Meanwhile, China is constructing a pair of commercial launch pads close to the coastal Wenchang space port. First flights are expected next year. They will support solid and liquid-propellant launch vehicles.

The launch was China’s 56th orbital launch of 2023. It followed a return-to-flight for Galactic Energy and its Ceres-1 solid rocket and the launch of Mirsat-2 remote sensing satellite via a Long March 2C Dec. 4.

CASC appears to have fallen short of its declared plan to launch more than 60 times across the year, but has not suffered a launch failure. 2023 has meanwhile been a breakthrough year for commercial actors who have accounted for 15 orbital launches. This includes the first successful liquid propellant launches.

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...