For the fourth time in less than 10 months – and the second one to claim a successful flight – China has debuted a new small satellite launch vehicle based on solid rocket motors with a payload of less than one tonne to Low Earth Orbit. The Smart Dragon-1 (SD-1) rocket, also known by its Chinese name Jielong-1, lifted off from the mobile launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China today at 04:11 UTC. Chinese media has later declared the launch a success.
The Smart Dragon-1 (Jielong-1) is a small solid-fueled quick-reaction launch vehicle developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), complementing with the larger Long March 11 that has flown seven successful flights since September 2015.
Launch operations are managed by China Long March Rocket Corporation, a spin-off company of CALT. The project was formally started in February 2018, less than 18 months before today’s first flight. It was designed to provide an easy to operate quick-reaction launch vehicle, that can remain in storage for long periods and to provide launch missions on short notice.
According to CALT, Smart Dragon-1 can be produced from order to launch within six months and requires only a 24 hour checkout at the launch site. The whole launch vehicle is launched from a Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) truck that transports the launch vehicle to the launch site.
The Smart Dragon-1 is a four stage solid-fueled launch vehicle equipped with a reaction control system on the front cone of the launch vehicle.
Unusually for satellite launch vehicles, the payload volume is located between the third and fourth stages, with the fourth stage motor and all payloads installed in invert position during launch.
After separation of the third stage, the fourth stage is then flipped over for the remainder of the mission.
The vehicle has a length of 19.5 meters, 1.2 meters in diameter and a liftoff mass of about 23.1 tonnes. Smart Dragon-1 can launch a 200 kg payload to a 500 km altitude Sun-synchronous Orbit (SSO), or 150 kg to a 700 km high SSO. Two types of payload envelopes are provided: 1.1 meters diameter, 1.5 meters length or 1.4 meters diameter, 2.0 meters in length.
Smart Dragon-1 is the fourth new Chinese satellite launch vehicle to debut in the last 10 months. It follows three different launch vehicles developed by private Chinese companies:
- LandSpace’s ZhuQue-1, which failed on its first flight on October 27, 2018 due to an attitude control problem on its third stage.
- OneSpace’s OS-M1, which failed on its first flight on March 27, 2019 due to a gyroscope problem 45 seconds after launch.
- iSpace (Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Ltd.)’s Hyperbola-1 (Shian Quxian-1), which scored China’s first successful launch of a fully privately funded satellite launch vehicle on July 25, 2019.
All four launch vehicles use three or four solid rocket motor stages and have a capability of several hundred kilograms to Low Earth Orbit.
Similar Chinese launch vehicles in operation include CALT’s own Long March 11 (first launched in September 2015 and is capable of launching from a barge), China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC)’s Kuaizhou-1 (first launched in September 2013; commercial variant Kuaizhou-1A in operation since January 2017) and Kaituozhe-2 also from CASIC (one successful test flight in March 2017).
The mission deployed three satellites into Low Earth Orbit.
Qiansheng-1-01 of Qiansheng Exploration Tech Co. is a 65 kg satellite that provides both Earth imaging services (with a resolution of better than two meters) and carries a 20kbps speed narrowband communication payload.
Tianqi-2 of Guodian Gaoke from Beijing is a prototype small Low Earth Orbit communication satellite that provides Internet-of-Things (IoT) communications. It follows Tianqi-1 and 3 launched in October 2018 and June 2019 as prototypes for satellites of a planned follow-on constellation.
Xingshidai 5 for Guoxing Aerospace Technology of Chengdu is a 10 kg Earth observation satellite built by MinoSpace Technology of Beijing using their MN10 satellite bus.
The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, named after the city in Gansu Province but is actually located in Ejin-Banner, Alashan League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region – is China’s first satellite launch center, used for the launch of China’s first satellite Dongfanghong-1 on April 24, 1970.
Currently, all launch operations are located at Area 43 (also known as the South Launch Area), built for the Shenzhou human spaceflight program in the 1990s.
The area contains two fixed launch pads – Launch Pad 91 for the Long March 2F rocket for launches of the Shenzhou and Tiangong spacecraft, and Launch Pad 94 for satellite launches using the Long March 2C, 2D, 4B and 4C launch vehicles.
Saturday’s launch was from one of two mobile launch pad sites used for all small solid-fueled launch vehicle launches originating from Jiuquan, located to the east of Pad 91.
According to CALT, Smart Dragon-1 has already secured six launch contracts by today with intentions of at least 30 more flights, with its second flight planned for as early as late 2019.
The next known Chinese satellite launch will be on August 19, when a Long March 3B rocket will launch the ChinaSat 18 communication satellite from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.