China debuts Jielong-3 rocket from Yellow Sea

by Adrian Beil

China successfully debuted the Jielong-3 orbital rocket from the Tai Rui Barge in the Yellow Sea. Liftoff happened at 06:35 UTC, and the success of the mission was confirmed a bit later. The payload for this mission was a rideshare of 14 satellites.

Eight of the rideshare payloads were Jilin Gaofen (“high resolution”) satellites, seven of which were numbered 44-50. These satellites are part of a remote sensing satellite system that is operated by Chang Guang Satellite Technology, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). 

One slightly different satellite of the Jilin constellation was also included in this launch. The Jilin-1 01A01 satellite will be used for different purposes, depending on the need of the constellation, and can be used for remote sensing or navigation.

Satellites are being integrated into the Jielong-3 dispenser. (Credit: CNSA)

The constellation is used to observe Earth and collect data in numerous fields, such as geography and land surveying, ocean monitoring, and atmospheric research. Jilin Gaofen is expected to reach 138 satellites over time.

Another part of the maiden launch was a satellite of the Tianqi constellation. The kick-off of the constellation was in 2018, and it is used as a LEO communications satellite that will provide internet of things communications. The full constellation is planned to feature 38 LEO satellites that aim to enhance connectivity for the industry in China.

Also part of this initial launch was the Fengtai Shaonian 2 school satellite, three Dongpo Earth surveillance satellites, the HEAD 2H Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, two Jinzijing Earth surveillance payloads, and the Huoju 1-01 research satellite. Not every payload for this launch received exact purposes or mass details.

The rocket for today’s launch was Jielong-3 (Smart Dragon 3). It is the second rocket that has launched with the Jielong name. In August 2019, the Jielong-1 rocket was launched as part of a program that had the goal to enable fast and cost-efficient launch capabilities. The launch was confirmed a success, and since then, no other Jielong-1 has flown.

Initially, a Jielong-2 was planned as well. The plan to develop the 21-meter-long rocket, however, was canceled in September 2021. 

Before the launch, the rocket was carried on the Tai Rui Barge, which was towed by the Bei Hai Jiu 118 support ship. 

Jielong-3 on the Tai Rui barge. (Credit: CNSA)

The Jielong-3 rocket consists of four solid-fueled rocket stages. It is 31.8 meters tall with a diameter of about 2.65 meters. It is planned to launch payloads up to 1,500 kg into Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), with today’s payload mass being unknown. It is planned to primarily utilize the sea launch capabilities in the Yellow Sea and use the barges such as DeBomethane-powered 3, or today’s barge Tai Rui.

The payload fairing is 3.35 meters in diameter and gives the rocket its very front-heavy shape. Of the 145 t of mass at liftoff, about 71 t is the solid motor of the first stage.

In contrast to other solid rockets of China, such as Chang Zheng 11 (Long March 11), this rocket is not “cold launched” from the barge. Cold launched means that the rocket is expelled from a launch tube on the barge, and then ignited in the air. For Jielong-3, the ignition happens on the barge itself. It produces 2,000 kN of thrust at liftoff. It is launched on a grid, directly over the sea, so the water of the ocean is used as a suppression system for the launch vehicle.

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The rocket shows some very close similarities with the recently debuted ZK-1A rocket, which also utilizes solid motors. Not only are the length and diameter very similar, but also the rocket motor appears to be the same. The exact background of this similarity is not known yet, but it could be a very similar basis for the rocket that is used for both of these flight vehicles. This is further supported by the fact that both vehicles happened in different arms of the Chinese government space program.

For transport, the Jielong-3 is transferred to a launch barge at its harbor in Haijang in a horizontal configuration. Later, the rocket is then raised vertically on the ship for launch. In later attempts, the plan is to carry multiple rockets and payloads on the ship when going out to sea to further increase the launch cadence of Chinese rockets. A production capacity of 20 rockets per year is planned for the Jielong rockets.

Down the line, a third Jielong family rocket is planned, called Jielong-4. It aims to further boost the solid rocket capabilities of China with a 500-ton thrust at liftoff rocket. No further details on the possible timeline and maiden launch for this rocket are known as of now. 

Sea launch capabilities are becoming increasingly important for the Chinese rocket program. After the Chang Zheng 11H already conducted four launches from different barges on the Yellow Sea, this is the second launch vehicle that uses it as a launch pad. Private companies, such as Galactic Energy, have also voiced their interest to launch from there.

This launch was already the third launch of China this week, after the Chang Zheng 2D Gaofen mission on Thursday at 18:31 UTC, and the Kuaizhou 11 mission carrying the Xingyun VDES payload on Wednesday at 01:15 UTC. Both missions were confirmed to be successful.

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With this launch, China stands at 58 launches in 2022, with several more launches planned before the closing of the year. This includes the possibility of launching the first methane-based rocket to orbit. The company LandSpace, with their ZhuQue-2 rocket, is in a race with the American company Relativity Space for the milestone. Both rockets are currently at their pads, with ZhuQue-2 currently targeting Dec. 14 for a maiden launch.

(Lead photo: Jielong-3 lifts off from the Yellow Sea. Credit: CNSA)

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