China resumes space launch activity amid coronavirus outbreak

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HELSINKI — China launched a Long March 2D rocket from its inland Xichang launch center Wednesday, marking a return to activity following the Chinese New Year.

Liftoff of the Long March 2D, launching for the first time from Xichang, occurred at 4:07 p.m. Eastern. 

Official confirmation of launch came around 40 minutes after liftoff. Four technology test satellites named XJS-C, -D, -E and -F were successfully placed into predetermined orbits, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) announced.

CASC stated that the satellites will test ‘new Earth observation technology’ and inter-satellite networking.

The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, a CASC subsidiary, developed two of the satellites.  The Harbin Institute of Technology and DFH Satellite Co., Ltd., another CASC subsidiary separately developed the remaining pair.

Preparations for launch proceeded quietly, with the disclosure of an imminent launch coming only from airspace closure notices. 

The first indication of launch came from social media posts by locals startled by the noise and vibrations, who momentarily feared an earthquake. The Xichang Satellite Launch Center is located in a mountainous, seismically active region of Sichuan province.

Areas downrange were evacuated early morning local time according to further social media posts. Launches from Xichang frequently result in spent stages threatening inhabited areas.

Launch plans amid outbreak

CASC stated (Chinese) that the flight was not only a successful space launch, but also of the measures implemented by the group to fight the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

The state-owned enterprise stated early January that it aimed to carry out more than 40 launches across 2020. These include major interplanetary, lunar and space infrastructure missions. It is unclear to extent to which the virus outbreak and measures to contain it will impact these plans.

Wednesday’s mission was China’s fourth in 2020. A Long March 3-series rocket and Beidou navigation satellites are also at Xichang undergoing launch preparations. 

Meanwhile at the southern coastal Wenchang spaceport China is quietly rehearsing for the launch of a new Long March 7A. The 

Preparations for the test flight of the heavy-lift Long March 5B are also underway at Wenchang. That mission will launch an uncrewed test flight of a new generation crewed spacecraft. The launch will double as a test launch for lofting 20-metric-ton space station modules.