China launches two satellites following EVA at Tiangong station

by Justin Davenport

The Chinese space program has resumed launches after going over a month without a single launch due to the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival holiday period. On Thursday, Feb. 23, at 7:49 PM Beijing time (11:49 UTC), Chang Zheng 3B Y93 flew successfully from pad LC-2 at Xichang in southwest China.

This flight, the first of the year for the CZ-3 family, was carrying the Zhongxing 26 geostationary communications satellite. Zhongxing 26, developed by CAST, is a high-throughput Ka-band communications satellite meant to serve the greater East Asia/Australia area. It is based on the DFH-4E (Dong Feng Hong-4E) satellite bus that has been used for other Chinese-launched geostationary communications satellites.

The Zhongxing 26 spacecraft, internationally known as ChinaSat 26, will become China’s highest-capacity communications satellite with a throughput greater than 100 gigabits per second. The satellite, which cost more than 2.3 billion Chinese yuan, has a coverage area extending from the Horn of Africa to Japan, the Kamchatka Peninsula, and northern Queensland in Australia.

Just over 16 hours later, a Chang Zheng 2C launched successfully from the SLS-2 pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. This took place at 12:01 PM Beijing time (04:01 UTC) on Friday, Feb. 24, and was the second flight of the year for this model. The CZ-2C flew a remote sensing satellite, named Horus-1, into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit.

There is very little known about Horus-1. Although CALT (China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology) helped to build the spacecraft, it is possibly not a Chinese-owned satellite. Horus-1 is reportedly an Egyptian satellite. In addition, the design of the mission patch mentions the “One Belt One Road Initiative,” referring to the Chinese initiative to build transportation and trade links throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and the world.

The CZ-2 and 4 rockets are frequently used to launch remote sensing and Earth observation satellites into orbit from multiple launch centers. China has launched numerous observation satellites for various civil and military functions, particularly in the past decade, but Horus-1 would be one of the few non-Chinese satellites to be launched from China in recent years, if it is true that Horus-1 is an Egyptian satellite, as it appears likely to be.

Taikonaut Fei Junlong works outside the Tiangong space station during a Feb. 9 spacewalk. (Credit: CMSA)

These launches have not been the only Chinese space activity this month. On Feb. 9, two taikonauts conducted a spacewalk from the Tiangong space station in low Earth orbit. This EVA was the first one conducted by the Shenzhou-15 crew during its six-month mission.

Taikonauts Fei Junlong, the mission commander, and Zhang Lu exited the station for a seven-hour spacewalk. Fei, in the suit with red stripes, and Zhang, in the suit with the blue stripes, reportedly had an external pump replacement on the Mengtian science module as a task.

The spacewalk ended safely at 12:16 AM Beijing time on Feb. 10 (16:16 UTC on Feb. 9). It is not currently known if other EVAs are planned for the Shenzhou-15 crew before it comes home sometime in May. Shenzhou-15 is about halfway through its mission in orbit and will be relieved by the Shenzhou-16 crew.

February 2023 also marks the two Earth-year anniversary of the Tianwen-1’s successful maneuver to become the first Chinese probe to orbit Mars. After reaching Martian orbit on Feb. 10, 2021, Tianwen-1 also released the Zhurong rover which successfully landed on the surface at Utopia Planitia three months later, on May 14.

The Zhurong rover as seen by the MRO HIRISE instrument during September 2022 and February 2023 (Credit: NASA)

However, a recent image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HIRISE camera showed that there was no movement by the rover from September 2022 up to this month. The picture, taken on Feb. 7, also shows Zhurong less clearly than the Sept. 8 image. This shows that the rover is covered in dust, which reduces the power output of the solar panels.

So far there has been no update from China regarding the status of Zhurong, even as Tianwen-1 marked its second anniversary after its arrival at Mars. Regardless of Zhurong’s fate, CNSA plans to conduct more solar system missions in the coming years, including a sample return from Mars and probes to the outer solar system.

The Chinese reportedly plan to launch Zhongxing 6E as early as March 17, as per a NOTAM filed for airspace closures east of Taiwan for the Zhongxing 26 and Zhongxing 6E launches. The Chinese space sector is also proceeding with commercial projects like the Tianlong-2 as 2023 looks to be another busy year for China in spaceflight.

(Lead image: The successful launch of Zhongxing 26 on Feb. 23. Credit: CALT)

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