China’s third launch in a week proves too much as Long March 2C fails

With an apparent urgency to complete an orbiting constellation, China launched another new satellite in the ShiJian-11 series, just three weeks after the launch of the previous ShiJian-11 mission. However, the launch of the Long March 2C with ShiJian 11-04 failed during ascent after leaving the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 09:28UTC on Thursday.

Chinese Failure:

The new satellite was launched from the SLS-2/603 launch pad with the same launch azimuth of the Shi Jian 11-03. According to Chinese media this was classed as an “experimental satellite”. Like the previous SJ-11 satellites, the new satellite was developed by the DongFangHong Satellite Company of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

As with the previous ShiJian-11 satellites, the true mission of Shi Jian 11-04 was not revealed by the Chinese authorities. Some observers noted that the ShiJian 11 series could be related with a constellation of operational early warning satellites. ‘ShiJian’ means ‘Practice’ and this series of satellites have been used with a variety of configurations and missions for scientific research and technological experiments.

The first SJ-11 ShiJian-11 (36088 2009-061A) was launched at 0245:04UTC on November 12th 2009 by a CZ-2C Chang Zheng-2C (Y21) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The satellite is operating in a 705 by 687 km 98,19 degree inclination orbit. The second satellite on the series, ShiJian 11-03 (37730 2011-030A) was launched at 0428:03.993UTC on July 6, 2011 by a CZ-2C Chang Zheng-2C (Y25) also from Jiuquan.

It is now operating 704 by 690 km 98,23 degree inclination orbit. ShiJian 11-02 (37765 2011-039A) was the third satellite on the series and was launched at 0742:03.570UTC on July 29, 2011 from Jiuquan by a CZ-2C Chang Zheng-2C (Y24) launch vehicle. That satellite is now operating 706 by 688 km 98,11 degree inclination orbit.

The new satellite, ShiJian 11-04 was to be placed in a similar orbit. However, after several hours of confusion and conflicting reports, this satellite has been lost, along with its launch vehicle – as Chinese experts aligned with news that “the rocket fell”.

The Chang Zheng 2C (Long March 2C) is a low Earth orbit launch vehicle derived from DF-5 ICBM, and can be launched from either the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center or the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center.

The rocket is a two stage hypergolic launch vehicle with a total length of 35.15 meters, a diameter of 3.35 meters and a total mass of 192,000 kg. The first stage is equipped with four YF-20A engines. Is has a length of 20.52 meters and a burn time of 122 seconds.

The second stage is equipped with one YF-22A engine, and has a length of 7.50 meters with a burn time of 130 seconds.

With official Chinese media reports being tight-lipped – as is usual for China in the event of a problem – the exact cause of the failure is unknown. However, given the failure is now official, this would be the first time the Long March 2C has failed in its 35 launch career, and only the second Chinese failure since February, 1996.

That failure – involving a Long March 3B – occurred when the first stage suffered a problem just two seconds after lift-off, resulting in the vehicle veering heavily off the pad. With no range safety on board, the vehicle flew almost sideways for around a minute, before nose-diving into a nearby town, killing an untold amount of people. Recently unearthed raw video (30mb) of the launch, impact, and aftermath available on L2.

There have been other partial failures – such as the August 18, 1996 mission which saw the Long March 3′s third stage deploying the ZhongXing-7 satellite in a lower than planned orbit. The satellite was recovered, but abandoned soon after.

Given the vehicle did launch, the mission was the 146th Chinese orbital launch, the 145th launch of the Chang Zheng launch vehicle family, the 49th orbital launch from the Jiuquan Satellite launch Center, and the ninth orbital launch from China this year. It was also the third launch in a week, a pace which may now be in question, especially for Long March 2C missions.

Also known as the Shuang Cheng Tze launch center, the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center was the first Chinese satellite launch center.

The site includes a Technical Centre, two Launch Complexes, Mission Command and Control Centre, Launch Control Centre, propellant fuelling systems, tracking and communication systems, gas supply systems, weather forecast systems, and logistic support systems. Jiuquan was originally used to launch scientific and recoverable satellites into medium or low earth orbits at high inclinations.

It is also the place from where all the Chinese manned missions are launched. Presently, only the SLS launch complex (with two launch pads – 603 and 912) is in use. The 603 launch pad is used for unmanned launches and the 912 is used for the manned space program.

The first orbital launch took place on April 24, 1970 when the CZ-1 Chang Zheng-1 (CZ1-1) rocket launched the first Chinese satellite, the Dong Fang Hong-1 (04382 1970-034A).

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