HELSINKI — China launched its third Gaofen-11 reconnaissance satellite Nov. 19, adding to a set of classified satellites with an optical resolution which may be comparable to top U.S. spy satellites.

A Long March 4B lifted off from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in northern China at 8:51 p.m. Friday, inserting the Gaofen-11 (03) satellite into a 247 by 694-kilometer altitude orbit inclined by 97.5 degrees.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) announced launch success shortly after orbital insertion. However details about the satellite’s capabilities were not revealed.

State media Xinhua stated the satellite would be “mainly used for land surveys, city planning, land rights confirmation, road network design, crop yield estimation and disaster prevention and mitigation.”

Gaofen satellites form the civilian China High-resolution Earth Observation System (CHEOS) comprised of optical, multispectral, hyperspectral and synthetic aperture radar satellites. Resolution capabilities and other information has been published for lower numbered Gaofen series satellites. 

However information for Gaofen satellites numbered 8 and above has not been openly released within or prior to launch reports, suggesting the satellites are for national defense purposes.

Renders of the first Gaofen-11 satellite in orbit on mission control screens shown on state television suggest the series of satellites have large (1.5-meter-diameter-plus) apertures for optical remote sensing.

An article published by the Chinese Society for Geodesy, Photogrammetry and Cartography (Chinese) in November 2020 states that Gaofen-11 has the capability to return optical imagery at a resolution of around 10 centimeters. The interview-based article claims that this is comparable to the perceived yet classified capabilities of the U.S. Keyhole reconnaissance satellite system.

President Trump tweeted a smartphone photo of an image of an Iranian pre-launch failure from an apparent KENNEN satellite in August 2019, providing an indication of the imaging capabilities of the classified satellites. 

Another satellite was used to image the Space Shuttle Columbia during its first mission in 1981 to check for damage to its thermal protection system.

The three Gaofen-11 satellites will be networked together, according to the Xi’an Branch of China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) under CASC, which developed the satellite data transmission and relay subsystems.

This indicates the new Gaofen-11 (03) will circularize its orbit to match the roughly 495-kilometer altitudes at which the earlier two, launched in 2018 and 2020, orbit.

The launch was China’s 44th of 2021, having already eclipsed the previous national record for orbital launches in a calendar year of 39 launches reached in 2018 and 2020. An active Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) indicates a new launch is scheduled for between 6:37-7:04 p.m. Eastern Nov. 22 from Jiuquan, northwest China. 

The United States has so far launched 43 times this year, including Rocket Lab Electron launches from New Zealand.

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...