HELSINKI — China launched the first satellites for a medium Earth orbit broadband constellation late Wednesday.

A Long March 3B lifted off at 9:43 p.m. Eastern May 8 (0143 UTC May 9) from the inland Xichang Satellite Launch Center, southwest China. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) confirmed launch success, revealing the mission payloads for the first time to be the Smart Skynet-1 (01) satellites A and B.

The satellites were developed by CASC’s Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) for  Shanghai Tsingshen Technology Development Co. Ltd. Tsingshen Tech was founded in 2018. It is collaborating with Tsinghua University and the Shanghai government to create a medium Earth orbit (MEO) broadband satellite constellation.

Smart Skynet-1 (01) satellite A is equipped with a multi-beam, high-speed microwave link, an inter-satellite two-way laser link and an onboard digital processing and forwarding platform, according to SAST. Satellite B is equipped with an inter-satellite laser link experiment payload. On-orbit activities will include technology validation of flexible inter-satellite links and satellite-to-ground transmission. 

Tsingshen Tech plans initially to put eight satellites into 20,000-kilometer MEO orbits to form a global communications constellation. The nearest approximation to the constellation is O3B’s MEO constellation.

A Smart SkyNet-1 (01) satellite undergoing testing. Credit: SAST

This can be expanded to 16 satellites, consisting of two groups, and four groups totaling 32 satellites. The company claims, after completion, the constellation will provide personalized network services with no blind spots globally.

SAST states that Smart SkyNet could be joined up with China’s low Earth orbit communications megaconstellations, as well as comms satellites in geostationary orbit. This would provide access to all types of users in all scenarios and all domains.

Smart SkyNet is being promoted under the “Shanghai Action Plan to Promote Commercial Aerospace Development and Create a Space Information Industry Highland (2023-2025).” The move is one of a number of municipal and provincial level initiatives in China to boost commercial space activities and foster growth and innovation. Various action plans cover satellites, launch vehicles and related applications and infrastructure.

The city is also backing a broadband megaconstellation project known as “G60 Starlink,” centered in Shanghai’s Songjiang District. The project plans to launch the first 108 satellites this year and have more than 12,000 in orbit when completed. 

China now has a range of constellation plans in a range of orbits with heavy state backing. 

Constellation/OperatorOrbitNumber of Satellites
G60 StarlinkLEO12,000+
Tsingshen TechMEO8 (expansions to 16 and 32)
China SatcomGEOVarious (ChinaSat and APStar satellites)
Planned major Chinese communications constellations (Andrew Jones/SpaceNews)

The country has also mooted plans to form an integrated constellation for communications, navigation and remote sensing.

Wednesday’s launch was China’s 21st of 2024. It follows the launch of the Chang’e-6 sample return spacecraft, which has since entered lunar orbit, and the debut of the Long March 6C earlier this week. China aims to launch around 100 times 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...