China sends classified Shijian satellites into orbit with milestone Long March launch

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HELSINKI — A Long March 4B launched the Shijian-06 (05) group of satellites Dec. 9, marking the 400th launch of China’s Long March family of launch vehicles.

The Long March 4B lifted off from Site 9401 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 7:11 p.m. Eastern, rising into a dark blue pre-dawn desert sky.

The Shijian-6 (05) satellites, which could be a pair of satellites to join four earlier pairs satellites in the series, with the previous launch occurring in 2010, were developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and Aerospace Dongfanghong Satellite Co., Ltd. 

The satellites will be used for space environment exploration and technology verification tests, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., (CASC). No images of the satellites have been published.

Western analysis of the series and their roughly 585-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbits suggests Shijian-6 satellites are designed for signals intelligence or electronic intelligence purposes. 

The Long March 4B was provided by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) which like CAST is a major CASC subsidiary. The launcher uses hypergolic propellant and is capable of carrying 2,800 kilograms of payload into Sun-synchronous orbit.

The mission was China’s 49th orbital launch of 2021, extending a new national record for calendar year activity. The vast majority of launches have been Long March rockets, with additional launches from commercial firms Expace, iSpace and Galactic Energy.

Thursday’s launch was also the 400th Long March rocket launch. The official space industry newspaper China Space News marked the Long March achievement with the term “YYDS,” a Chinese equivalent of the abbreviation of GOAT, or “the greatest of all time.”

The relative speed at which the new milestone was reached illustrates the rapid acceleration of China’s launch rate in recent years. 

The first Long March launch took place April 24, 1970. It took until June 2007—or 37 years—to launch the first 100 Long March rockets, when a Long March 3A launched Xinnuo-3. The 200th launch followed seven and a half years later, in December 2014.

The 300th launch was conducted three and a half years later, in March 2019, meaning the latest 100 launches were carried out inside a period of two years and nine months.

The Long March rocket family has been responsible for 92.1 percent of China’s orbital launches in the 51 years since the country’s first launch, sending more than 700 spacecraft into space, with a launch success rate of 96.25 percent, according to CASC.

In comparison, SpaceX, a U.S. private company, has conducted more than 130 launches of its Falcon 9 family of rockets since the first in 2010, suffering one failure and one partial failure, while also developing and establishing first stage reusability. 

CASC’s first generation of Long March rockets are hypergolic, with the new Long March 5, 6, 7 and 8 rockets using cryogenic or kerosene fuel. With the demonstration of reusability by SpaceX, CASC is also working on a reusable variant of the Long March 8 and has reusable concepts for its future super heavy-lift launcher.

One major driver of Chinese launches in recent years has been the construction of Beidou, the country’s own Global Navigation Satellite System. China is also building remote sensing and communications space infrastructure which other leading space powers already have on orbit.

In 2014 China also opened a new, coastal launch site at Wenchang to facilitate launches of new large, cryogenic and kerolox rockets for space station and deep space missions. 

Chinese space-related activities are also increasing with the emergence and fostering of a commercial space sector since 2014. New spaceports are being constructed to allow for expanded launch activity and remove bottlenecks, including new facilities for sea launches.