Liftoff of a Long March 3B from Xichang at 2:09 p.m. Eastern June 24, 2019. Credit: CASC

HELSINKI — A Long March 3B lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China at 2:09 p.m. Eastern Monday, sending a Beidou satellite toward an inclined geosynchronous orbit.

The launch occurred within a window indicated by the issuance of an airspace closure notice days earlier. Spectator footage provided the first indication of liftoff, with mission success announced by a media arm of the People’s Liberation Army just over an hour after launch.

The mission involved the 21st satellite of the Beidou-3 rollout and the second to be placed in an inclined geosynchronous orbit.

Beidou-3 satellites form the third phase of construction of the Beidou Navigation Satellite System, which expands service coverage from regional to global. The new satellites also adopt inter-satellite link capabilities, new-generation rubidium atomic clocks and passive hydrogen maser clocks.

The completed system will comprise of 27 satellites in medium Earth orbits, five in geostationary orbits and three in inclined GEO orbits. The orbits of the latter are designed to form two figure eight loops to provide optimized coverage to China and neighboring countries in the Asia-Pacific.

Chinese press reports tout a variety of uses of the Beidou navigation and positioning system including public security, transportation, fishing, power, forestry, disaster reduction, the construction of smart cities, social governance and more. 

Significantly, Beidou also boosts the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army in areas including weapons targeting, guidance and other services, notably removing previous Chinese military reliance on U.S. GPS.

The satellite was the 46th launched for the Beidou system overall, with China aiming to complete the positioning, navigation and timing constellation in 2020. China has also established a continuous global monitoring and evaluation system for Beidou with more than 20 ground stations across the world.

Launch schedule challenges

Monday’s launch was China’s 11th orbital mission of 2019, a number which includes the country’s first sea launch but also two failures, one of which was suffered by an emerging private space.

At the start of the year the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the main contractor for the space program, stated it would aim to carry out more than 30 launches in 2019. However a Long March 4C launch failure last month could impact a number of planned Long March 4C and 4B launches, including the joint China-Brazil CBERS-4A resource monitoring satellite. 

Also of concern is an apparent delay to the return-to-flight of the Long March 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle, which was stated to launch mid-July carrying a large, experimental communications satellite. Indications are that the launch has slipped, with no new target date or update of the situation having been issued. The Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, the following Long March 5 mission slated for December, will also be affected.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.