Long March 2C launches 9 navigation test satellites for Chinese automaker

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HELSINKI — A Long March 2C launched nine positioning and connectivity test satellites early Thursday, in a first step for a constellation to support autonomous driving for automaker Geely.

A Long March 2C lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China at 12:00 a.m. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) confirmed launch success, revealing the payload to be GeeSAT-5 (01-09) for Geespace.

Geespace is a wholly owned subsidiary of automaker Geely Technology Group, which has first developed, produced and will operate the low-orbit commercial satellites.

All nine satellites were functioning correctly after making contact with a ground station in Korla, Geespace confirmed in a press release.

The nine satellites are part of the planned  “Geely Future Mobility Constellation” constellation that will consist of 240 satellites. The first phase of 72 satellites are planned to be sent into orbit by 2025, with a second phase of 168 satellites to follow.

Geespace says the satellites will provide centimeter-level accuracy positioning and connectivity support for Geely brand cars to support autonomous driving. 

Described as modular, high-resilience, high-performance, mass-produced low-orbit satellites, each will have an operating lifespan of five years. Geely aims to offer the first combined commercial Precise Point Positioning and Real-Time Kinematic (PPP-RTK) services.

The route to orbit for Geespace has not been smooth. A report in April 2020 stated that two Geely satellites had been transported to Jiuquan for launch in the second half of 2020. A Kuaizhou-1A failure followed, grounding the rocket. After a successful return to flight, a pair or Geespace satellites were lost on a December 2021 Kuaizhou-1A launch. 

Geely established a $326 million satellite mass manufacturing factory in Taizhou in March 2020, which will have an estimated production capacity of over 500 satellites per year, according to a press release.

The first mass manufactured satellites rolled out of Taizhou in late September 2021. It is unclear if the satellites lost in the December launch were the earlier pair or a new set from Taizhou.

Thursday’s launch followed the signing of an agreement for Long March launch services between Geespace and CGWIC of CASC in September 2021.

Geely’s space-related subsidiaries are located in Nansha district of Guangzhou, with the city looking to foster a space cluster which includes CAS Space, a commercial spinoff from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Tony Wang, CEO and Chief Scientist of Geespace said: “Many favorable factors such as policy support and market demand is accelerating the growth of the commercial aerospace sector. By establishing the Geely Future Mobility Constellation, Geespace is positioning itself to meet future user demands for high-precision positioning, space-based communication, and remote sensing services.” 

China’s government opened portions of the space sector to private capital in late 2014, seeking to foster commercial space ecosystems beyond the state sector dominated by CASC through incentives, policy support and a military-civil fusion technology transfer national strategy. 

The moves are seen as a response to the earlier rise of commercial space activities in the U.S. in the shape of SpaceX and others. 

Chinese policy frameworks, including support for new infrastructures such as “satellite internet,” and localities seeking to attract high-end technology space firms, have supported the emergence of hundreds of companies in areas around launch, satellite and downstream applications, leading to the formation of several space industry clusters and pilot zones in China.

The GeeSat-5 satellites are likely to have onboard propulsion. A “notice on promoting the orderly development of small satellites” (Chinese) issued in May 2021 states that small satellites in orbits below 2,000 kilometers should be capable of collision avoidance maneuvers, as well as lowering orbits following the end of missions, to ensure satellites are deorbited no more than 25 years after the end of operations.

State departments may take relevant “appropriate measures” if a company does not track, report on, and deorbit its satellites.