HELSINKI — China launched three low Earth orbit broadband test satellites Friday, completing a record-breaking year for launches globally.

A Long March 2C rocket lifted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 7:13 p.m. Dec. 29 (0013 UTC, Dec. 30). The China Aerospace Science and Technology Group (CASC) confirmed launch success and revealed the passengers to be three satellite Internet technology test satellites. 

U.S. Space Force space domain awareness later tracked three objects in roughly 930 by 940-kilometer orbits with an inclination of 50 degrees.

The satellites were developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), a major spacecraft maker under CASC, China’s state-owned main space contractor. 

Previous Chinese satellite internet test satellites launched in 2023 have also been developed by CASC’s Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) and the Innovation Academy for Microsatellites (IAMCAS) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). 

The missions are believed to be part of China’s national Guowang LEO broadband megaconstellation project. Meanwhile the first satellite for another Chinese megaconstellation rolled off assembly lines earlier this week.

The mission was China’s 67th orbital launch of 2023. This number eclipsed its previous national record of 64, achieved in 2022

2023 breakdown

CASC had targeted launching more than 60 times this year, aiming to put more than 200 spacecraft into orbit. Despite suffering no launch failures it has fallen someway short, with commercial space actors accounting for 17 of the 67 launches. Only one launch, a Ceres-1 rocket from startup Galactic Energy, failed.

CASC continued to rely heavily on launches of its older, hypergolic Long March 2, 3 and 4 series rockets across 2023, with an expected Long March 5B launch not taking place. With China completing its Tiangong space station with two module launches in 2022, coupled with a larger number of 2023 launches being of light-lift solid rockets, China’s tonnage to orbit was likely well down on 2022. 

CASC was hit by the development in recent days that its chairman, Wu Yansheng, has had his seat on the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a major consultative body, revoked. Chinese media also reported that Wang Changqing, deputy manager of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC)—another state-owned enterprise engaged in space activities— lost his seat. It is currently unclear what this means for the individuals and their respective enterprises.

Major Chinese launches in 2023 included the Shenzhou-16 and 17 crewed missions to Tiangong, the launch of remote sensing assets to geostationary orbits, the launch of the country’s first commercial liquid launchers, and a third flight of its secretive, experimental spaceplane.

There were 222 launch attempts across 2023, eclipsing the previous record of 186 in 2022. China trailed behind only the United States, which conducted 116 launches, a number which includes Rocket Lab Electron launches from New Zealand. SpaceX accounted for 98 of these, falling just short of a planned 100 launches.

Major missions in 2023 included NASA’s Psyche metal world explorer, SpaceX’s first orbital Starship launch attempts, India’s historic Chandrayaan-3 moon landing, ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) and Euclid space telescope, Russia’s failed Luna 25 mission and Japan’s launch of its SLIM lunar lander.

Spaceplane mysteries

One of the final SpaceX missions saw the U.S. Space Force X-37B spaceplane, which is estimated to have entered a highly elliptical, high inclination orbit, and to a much higher altitude than its six previous missions.

China also launched its own reusable spaceplane earlier in December. The pair of missions are symbolic of the US and China being the leading space actors and geopolitical tensions between the two extending to space.

The Chinese spaceplane was reported by some media to have released six satellites into orbit. However, those reports appeared to have misrepresented the fact that a total of six objects, including the spaceplane, had been tracked in orbit, rather than the spaceplane had released objects. Amateur spacecraft trackers suggested that one of the objects other than the spaceplane were transmitting signals. The spaceplane has previously deployed small payloads into orbit during its two earlier missions.

However the five other objects were likely the Long March 2F upper stage and four pieces of debris typically associated with Long March 2F launches. One of the spacecraft trackers provided an update Dec. 22, suggesting that a minor timing issue has led the trackers to mistake signals sent by a group of Chinese Yaogan reconnaissance satellites as being emitted by a piece of debris associated with the spaceplane.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...