China sets new national launch record with Kuaizhou-1A mission

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HELSINKI — China set a new national record for orbital launches in a calendar year with the launch of a commercial remote sensing satellite on a Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket Wednesday.

The Kuaizhou-1A lifted off from a transporter erector launcher into clear blue skies above the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 2:19 a.m. Eastern, Oct. 27.  

The Jilin-1 Gaofen (“high resolution”) 02F remote sensing satellite was successfully inserted into its intended orbit. 

The satellite joins a constellation of Earth observation satellites being constructed by Chang Guang Satellite Technology Co. Ltd., (CGST), a commercial spinoff from the state-owned Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics (CIOMP) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). 

The satellite, expected to orbit at an altitude of 535 kilometers, will provide 0.75-meter resolution panchromatic imaging, 3-meter-resolution multispectral imaging and a swath width of 40 kilometers.

Chang Guang Satellite now has more than 30 satellites in orbit and is targeting 138 satellites by 2030.

The Kuaizhou-1A is operated by Expace, which belongs to the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC), a giant state-owned enterprise with growing space ambitions. 

The launch was the 12th Kuaizhou-1A launch and had been delayed briefly by a COVID-19 outbreak close to the testing team. An earlier launch attempt was scrubbed Monday. It is the second launch of the Kuaizhou-1A in a month, following a year being grounded following a 2020 launch failure

The rocket was manufactured at a new space cluster located in Xinzhou District, Wuhan city, on the north bank of the Yangtze. 

The Wuhan National Space Industry Base is being promoted by CASIC and the Wuhan Municipal People’s Government. Facilities at the base include capabilities to produce 20 solid-fuelled rockets annually, as well as capacity for producing 240 small satellites per year.

China’s new launch rates

The mission takes China to 40 orbital launches for 2021, surpassing the 39 launches conducted by China in 2018 and 2020. This does not include claims of a hypersonic vehicle test, recently reported by the Financial Times. The United States has so far launched 39 times this year, including Rocket Lab launches from New Zealand.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), the country’s main space contractor, has carried out 36 launches with more than 40 planned in total. Four commercial launches, two each from Expace and iSpace, a private firm, with Hyperbola-1 solid rockets, have been conducted. Both launches by the latter ended in failure.

The contrast to 2015, in which China launched 19 times—all using CASC’s Long March rockets—is stark. Most launches were related to establishing space infrastructure which major space actors already had in place, such as remote sensing, navigation and positioning and communications. China is now launching more than twice as many missions, while also greatly increasing total mass launched.

One major driver of launches has been the building of the construction of the Beidou system, the country’s answer to GPS. China also opened a new, coastal launch site at Wenchang to facilitate launches of new large, cryogenic and kerolox rockets for space station-related missions. 

The total mass being launched has also increased vastly across this time, with China now capable of regular medium- and heavy-lift launches. The Xichang launch center, southwest China, from which the workhorse Long March 3B launches, recently underwent renovations to allow a greater launch cadence. 

Notably 2021 has seen the launch of a 22-ton space station module, two 13-ton cargo spacecraft and two 8.2-ton crewed spacecraft. New DFH-5 GEO platforms are now available. China also launched ambitious interplanetary orbiter and rover and lunar sample-return missions in 2020. 

A new commercial sector has also emerged, following a late 2014 government policy shift opening up the launch, satellite and other sectors, including ground segment and downstream applications. Relatively rapid progress has been facilitated by a national military-civil fusion strategy, facilitating technology transfer and partnerships.

A number of new launch service providers, including Landspace, iSpace, OneSpace and Galactic Energy have all made launch attempts, with others such as Space Pioneer and Deep Blue Aerospace are making progress on launchers. 

These will be competing for contracts to launch commercial satellites which could become a major driver of further increases in launch rate.

In addition to CGST, other commercial actors such as Zhuhai Orbita, MinoSpace and ZeroG Lab are involved in Earth observation satellites, while small satellite developers Spacety and Smart Satellite, among others, are involved in synthetic aperture radar constellation plans. 

Carmaker Geely has also established a space-related subsidiary, Geespace, to develop a constellation of navigation enhancement and communications satellites to facilitate autonomous driving plans. Xingyun Aerospace, under CASIC, has plans for a narrowband constellation.

A new commercial launch center is being constructed near Ningbo, eastern China, to facilitate more launches. China has also developed sea launch capabilities.

Additionally China’s government, which in 2020 added “satellite internet” to a list of “new infrastructures” to be promoted and supported, earlier this year established a company to oversee the construction of a 13,000-satellite low Earth orbit broadband constellation, referred to as “Guowang”. While filings have been made to the ITU, plans and timelines for the building of the constellation remain unclear.