China launches four observation satellites in 48 hours

by Justin Davenport
Long March 2C

In a span of fewer than 48 hours, China has launched four observation satellites, three of them intended for military reconnaissance, and one intended for environmental monitoring. These launches were both conducted by Chang Zheng 2 family vehicles, the environmental satellite from Taiyuan in the north, and the military launch from Xichang in southwest China.

Chang Zheng 2C Launches Huanjing-2E

On Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 22:53 UTC, a Chang Zheng 2C launched from Launch Complex-9 (LC-9) at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi Province. The CZ-2C, also known internationally as the Long March 2C, successfully lofted a radar Earth observation satellite into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit.


Artist’s impression of the Huanjing-2E satellite in orbit. (Credit: CAST)

The Huanjing-2E (S-SAR-01) satellite is equipped with an S-band synthetic aperture radar capable of 5-meter resolution. This satellite can observe Earth even under conditions of cloud cover or darkness, and many SAR satellites have been flown for civilian and military purposes in recent years.

The satellite, launched into a 498 by 763 kilometer, 97.65-degree inclination Sun-synchronous orbit, is intended to support disaster monitoring, environmental monitoring, agriculture, forestry, water conservation, and other purposes. Chinese emergency management and environmental authorities are expected to be the main users of this satellite.

The Huanjing-2E satellite is the latest in a series. The first Huanjing (“environment”) satellites, Huanjing 1A and 1B, were launched in 2008 and reportedly had optical observation capability. Huanjing-1C, launched in 2012, was the first civilian Chinese SAR satellite, using a Russian-made instrument. Huanjing 2A and 2B, featuring optical capability, were launched in 2020.

Chang Zheng 2D Launches Yaogan-36

Just under 48 hours after the Taiyuan SAR satellite launch, a Chang Zheng-2D (CZ-2D) conducted a successful mission from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province. The CZ-2D launched three military reconnaissance satellites known collectively as Yaogan 36. Some sources have stated that these satellites are part of Group 02, though this was not confirmed after the launch by Chinese state media.

The launch took place on Friday, Oct. 14 at 19:12 UTC from Launch Complex-3 (LC-3) at Xichang. For this flight, the CZ-2D used a longer fairing to accommodate the Yaogan 36 payload.

Though little is known about the satellites’ purpose, it is known that the flight launched four objects into an orbit inclined 35 degrees to the equator. The orbital altitudes of the four objects vary slightly.

The four cataloged objects, 2022-133A, 2022-133B, 2022-133C, and 2022-133D, are in nearly circular orbits on the order of 485 kilometers altitude. 2022-133A is orbiting at an altitude of 487 by 499 km, while satellite B is at a 486 by 498 km orbit. 2022-133C is at 485 by 498 km and satellite D is at 485 by 497 km, per CelesTrak.

There are three satellites listed by many sources for the Yaogan launch, and the fourth orbiting object is likely the CZ-2D’s second stage. Interestingly, the patch that was released for this mission after the launch shows a solar sail. The CZ-2D’s payload adapter is equipped with a solar sail to speed up the stage’s deorbit process and prevent it from becoming a problematic item of space debris.

The Yaogan satellites are the latest in a long series of military satellites launched by China starting in 2006. These satellites are typically launched by CZ-2 or CZ-4 family rockets, themselves based on hypergolic-fueled ICBM technology. Although newer vehicles are now flying, the CZ-2, CZ-3, and CZ-4 based on the older-technology DF-5 missile are still workhorses for the Chinese civilian and military space programs.

Yaogan satellites have been known to feature optical, SAR, electronic intelligence (ELINT), or signals intelligence (SIGINT) payloads. SAR, optical, and SIGINT satellites in this series are typically launched to a Sun-synchronous polar orbit, while ELINT satellites have been launched to 35 and 63-degree inclinations in the past.

The 35-degree inclination orbits would cover the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, while the 63-degree orbits would also fly over the continental United States, Europe, Australia, and other areas of interest. Recent ELINT satellites in the Yaogan series that have flown to 35-degree inclinations have typically flown at altitudes on the order of 500 or 600 km.

Further launches in the Huanjing and Yaogan series are likely planned, with 11 satellites total planned for the Huanjing series. Yaogan satellites have been launched every year since 2006. The Huanjing-2E and Yaogan 36 launches are the 45th and 46th orbital launches from China this year, respectively. In addition, the Yaogan launch was the 444th flight of the entire Chang Zheng family of vehicles.

(Lead image: Chang Zheng 2C launches from Taiyuan with the Huanjing-2E satellite. Credit: CNSA)

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