HELSINKI — China has quietly rolled out a new Long March 7A rocket at a coastal launch site in preparation for launch of a ‘technology verification satellite’.

Official acknowledgement of an mission involving the new launcher came on Feb. 12 (Chinese), but with no indication of its timeline.

However images shared by Chinese space program watchers in China suggest the Long March 7A has already been rolled out to its launch pad at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center.

Launch is not expected imminently as no airspace closure notifications have been issued. The opening of the tower suggests training and testing exercises will precede launch.  

The terse notice stating that the Long March 7A was at Wenchang came from a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s main space contractor, which added that the payload for the mission is named ‘new technology verification satellite-6’. The name of the satellite series is apparently new, despite the satellite in question being designated ‘number 6’.

No indication of the application of the satellite, which will be sent to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), was provided. Geosynchronous orbits are typically used for communications, navigation and meteorology.

Other uses include warning systems such as the U.S. SBIRS missile warning system. China does not currently have confirmed early warning satellites. 

Delivery of an unspecified launch vehicle to the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan island took place in early January. Ship tracking indicates the components were delivered to Qinglan port by the Yuanwang-21 cargo ship following collection from Tianjin, north China.

Long March 7A for GTO launches

The Long March 7A is understood to be a variant of the standard Long March 7, which has flown twice. The new launcher uses the same 3.35-meter-diameter kerolox core and four 2.25-meter-diameter side boosters but includes an additional hydrolox third stage adopted from the older generation Long March 3B rocket to allow it to send payloads to GTO.

The Long March 7A launches from the coastal Wenchang spaceport, meaning its flightpath is over the sea. It could potentially replace the older Long March 3B for launches to GTO. The 3B launches from deep inland at Xichang, Sichuan province, and sees spent stages fall on inhabited areas.

The Long March 7A has a length of 60.13 meters, according to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, a CASC subsidiary. The liftoff mass is around 573 metric tons.

The Long March 7 test flight in 2016 lofted a scale version of a return capsule for a future new generation crewed spacecraft. The second launch in 2017 sent the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft into low Earth orbit (LEO) to test docking and refueling with the Tiangong-2 space lab.

Preparations for launch of the Long March 7A are preceding despite the impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The outbreak has infected 68,594 people in China by Feb. 16, according to statistics reported by Caixin. Measures introduced to combat the spread of the virus have also impacted the aerospace industry.

Preparations for the test flight of the Long March 5B are also underway at Wenchang. That mission will launch an uncrewed test flight of a new generation crewed spacecraft. If successful the following Long March 5Bmission is expected to launch the core module of China’s space station into LEO.

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