Chinese commercial remote sensing satellite firm to double size of constellation

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HELSINKI — Chinese commercial firm Changguang Satellite Technology says it will expand its under-construction Jilin-1 constellation from 138 to 300 satellites.

Changguang Satellite, a satellite manufacturer and operator based in Changchun, Jilin Province in northeast China, initially planned for its Jilin-1 constellation to consist of 138 satellites in orbit by 2025 to provide 10-minute revisit times. 

The 138 satellites will now constitute a first phase, to be completed by 2023, according to Changguang Satellite official Jia Hongguang, China News Service reported Oct. 27. The second phase will then see the constellation to be expanded to 300 satellites by 2025.

The news was reported alongside an announcement that five new satellites—Jilin-1 Gaofen 03D08 and Gaofen 03D51-54—had left the factory and begun a journey to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert.

Changguang Satellite was founded in December 2014 as an remote sensing offshoot from the state-owned Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics (CIOMP) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

The firm secured $375 million in funding for its Jilin-1 project in November 2020 and already has by far the largest Chinese commercial constellation in orbit. It is one of the most prominent and well-funded of the commercial space companies to have emerged in China since a 2014 policy decision to open up the sector to private capital. 

Jilin-1 satellites generally deliver panchromatic imagery with a resolution of between 0.50 and 0.75-meters. Other satellites in the constellation have video, multispectral, multipurpose, infrared and other capabilities. Data products are being commercialized by HEAD Aerospace, headquartered in Beijing.

A new batch of 16 Jilin-1 satellites were launched Aug. 10, meaning the firm now has 70 satellites in orbit. 10 of the new satellites were Jilin-1 Gaofen 03D optical satellites designed to deliver 75-centimeter resolution from an altitude around 535 kilometers.

The six others were Jilin-1 Hongwai 1 (“infrared 1”) satellites with infrared imaging payloads, while also equipped with GNSS occultation instruments developed by Yunyao Aerospace, a Chinese commercial satellite weather data firm.

Changguang Satellite stated in May that the Jilin-1 constellation can revisit any spot on Earth 17 to 20 times a day, following a launch of eight satellites May 4. The firm says it provides remote sensing data and product services for use in sectors including agriculture, forestry, oceans, environmental protection, urban construction, and scientific experiments.

The expansion of the Jilin-1 constellation follows concerns raised by China over the use of U.S. commercial satellite constellations in the Ukraine conflict, including communications via SpaceX’s Starlink satellites but also imagery from companies such as Maxar.

The People’s Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of China’s military forces and mouthpiece of the China Military Commission, ran a commentary (Chinese), published April 11, noting that companies such as Maxar and Black Sky provided satellite imagery of Russian troop movements to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion in February.

The commentary claims the U.S. has in recent years been “promoting the construction of so-called ‘space resilience’, attempting to blur the boundary between military and civilian spheres,” bringing commercial entities and the general public into the space arms race in order to strengthen its dominant position in space. It also framed the U.S. signing of more than 100 space situational awareness agreements as an attempt to create a “space NATO” alliance.

At the same time, concerns over China’s progress have been noted by the United States. Gen. David Thompson, U.S. vice chief of space operations, said the U.S. Space Force is likely to see continued funding increases to counter China’s rapid advances in its space program, SpaceNews reported Oct. 25.

“They are building and fielding space capabilities at an incredible pace,” said Thompson. In just five years, China has deployed more than 260 imaging satellites and about 50 navigation satellites, he added. “Their space capabilities are still not quite as good as ours, but they are really, really good. And so we have to assume that they are a peer competitor in that regard.”

Meanwhile, a Russian official speaking at a United Nations meeting on outer space security Oct. 26 warned that commercial systems as “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation,” over developments in Ukraine.