HONG KONG — China has conducted a pair of orbital missions to launch a commercially developed flat-panel communications satellite and a new batch of spy satellites.

A Long March 2D rocket lifted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China at 4:02 p.m. Eastern, July 26. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) stated that the payload was a Yaogan-36 satellite. No further information on the payload was provided.

The mission likely carries a trio of the classified spacecraft, joining four earlier groups of Yaogan-36 triplets in 500-kilometer-altitude orbits with inclinations of 35 degrees. The spacecraft are possible signal-intelligence satellites.

China has five groups of Yaogan-35 satellites in similar orbits. It is unclear what capabilities distinguish the two designations.

That mission followed the launch late July 22 of the first stackable, flat-panel communications satellite for Chinese commercial firm GalaxySpace. 

A Long March 2D was once again used, lifting off from Taiyuan spaceport in northern China at 10:50 p.m. Eastern. Also aboard were the Skysight AS-1, 2 and 3 satellites for Skysight Technology Co., Ltd.

Lingxi-03 carries a multi-beam digital payload with a data capacity of tens of gigabits per second, according to GalaxySpace. It also uses a flexible solar panel with a thickness of one millimeter. Galaxy Space previously launched six test satellites in March 2022.

The stackable satellite technology and other qualities of the new Lingxi-03 satellite will provide technical support for the rapid deployment of China’s low Earth orbit communications megaconstellation, GalaxySpace’s Hu Zhao told Chinese state media. 

The company will also accelerate the batch development of flat panel stackable satellites, and tackle core technologies such as phased array antennas for direct satellite-to-device communications and digital processing payloads, Zhu Zhengxian, chief technology officer of GalaxySpace, told Xinhua.

China’s national plans for LEO comms is building a constellation named Guowang, consisting of up to 13,000 satellites. The first batch of satellites is expected to launch later this year.

Skysight AS-1 is a synthetic aperture radar satellite built by CASC’s DFH Satellite Co., Ltd. The latter pair were built by GalaxySpace and carry optical and infrared remote sensing payloads respectively.

The rideshare launch was facilitated by CASC’s China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC). The Long March 2D can carry more than 3,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, or 1,300 kg to a 645-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.

The July 22 launch from Taiyuan also featured grid fins at the top of the first stage for helping to constrain the landing zone of the spent stage downrange. Three of China’s four national spaceports are located deep inland, meaning costly evacuation and recovery procedures are needed, and falling space debris occasionally falls within inhabited areas.

The launches marked the 149th and 150th consecutive successful Long March launches, according to CASC. The run of successes stretches back to a Long March 3B failure in April 2020. That launch saw the loss of the Indonesian Palapa-N1 communications satellite.

China has now launched a total of 480 Long March rockets, CASC says. The first, a Long March 1 rocket carrying DFH-1, launched from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert in 1970. CASC plans more than 60 launches this year, with the above launches marking 29 and 30 for 2023. Other actors could add a further 20 or more orbital missions in what appears to be a breakthrough year for China’s commercial launch sector. Firms CAS Space, iSpace, Expace, Space Pioneer and Landspace have all reached orbit so far in 2023. These include first commercial liquid propellant launch successes, achieved by Space Pioneer and Landspace.

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...