Commercial rockets spotted amidst Chinese launch tripleheader

by Adrian Beil

China is starting to increase its launch cadence again after a slow start to 2023. This week saw three launches in the Chang Zheng family while several more non-Chang Zheng vehicles were spotted on launch pads at Jiuquan.

Satellite Imagery of Jiuquan

Recently published satellite imagery showed new Chinese commercial vehicles on multiple pads at Jiuquan.

At the pad used by LandSpace, a ZQ-2-like body has been spotted vertically. It was later removed again. ZQ-2 was the first ever methane-based rocket to attempt to reach orbit but failed after an early shutdown of the third stage. The pictures could show a pathfinder previously stored next to the pad for checkouts and tests of the pad infrastructure. However, this could also be part of LandSpace preparing for flight two of its methane rocket.

The company has not yet given a timeline for the return to flight, but imagery before the first flight showed the hardware of the second rocket already in a nearly complete state.

Tianlong-2 was also spotted on a pad. This rocket, developed by Space Pioneer, is an RP-1-fueled rocket that plans to debut soon. It is a three-stage rocket with a diameter of 3.35 meters which allows railroad transport. It utilizes government RP-1 engines of the type YF-102, and three of these at full thrust produce 1,900 kN at liftoff. 

The fact that this rocket is on the pad could mean the debut of the new vehicle is coming soon. After initially spotted by Harry Stranger, the company also posted a picture of the rocket on Weibo, confirming it is on the pad. No launch date has been given yet, but the target range is “late march,” and a NOTAM has been issued for March 30.

Chang Zheng 2C Launches Horus 2

On Monday, March 13, at 04:02 UTC, a Chang Zheng 2C was launched out of China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC). The payload went to a 489 by 502 km orbit with an inclination of 97.5 degrees. The payload was the second of two Horus satellites.

Chang Zheng 2C in flight. (Credit: CASC)

Horus 2 is an Egyptian satellite partially built by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). Horus-1 launched in February of this year, just weeks ago, on the same rocket configuration. Besides the fact that it is an Earth observation satellite, very little is known about the payload, including mass, size, and detailed purpose.

The Egyptian Space Agency (EgSA) confirmed the satellite would help with sustainable development goals. It is equipped with “high-resolution imaging cameras.” 

The Chang Zheng 2C rocket was used. It mostly launches as a two-staged launch vehicle and can lift up to 3,850 kg to low Earth orbit. For this mission´s Sun-synchronous orbit, it can lift up to 1,400 kg.

The rocket itself only consists of the main body and has no side boosters attached. It stands 42 meters tall with a diameter of 3.35 meters. That diameter is common in early Chinese rockets, as they use similar tank sections for most early vehicles.

Chang Zheng 11 Launches Shiyan 19

A few days later, on Wednesday, March 15, a Chang Zheng 11 was launched from JSLC. The payload was the Shiyan-19 satellite, which will operate in a Sun-synchronous orbit.

Shiyan Weixing payloads are “experimental satellite” payloads. They are a series of test satellites that launch from time to time on a wide range of Chinese launch vehicles. Besides a generic use, no payload or mass details are usually given. 

For this one, the satellite purpose is “land census, urban planning, and disaster prevention and mitigation.” This description has been given to multiple satellites in the past, and a more exact purpose is unclear.

Chang Zheng 11 ejected before ignition. (Credit: CASC)

The special situation with this launch is the launch vehicle. Chang Zheng 11 is a silo-launched rocket, which is ejected from a tube on a truck before igniting its engines in the air. It is designed to be a short-notice rocket that can be launched quickly and flexibly. This is also why it is based on solid propellants, as these make storing the rocket in an already readied configuration easier.

In a second configuration, CZ-11H, it can be launched from sea assets in the Yellow Sea. It can lift up to 700 kg to LEO and 350 kg to SSO and is more for the smaller payloads of the Chinese fleet. This is the first time it was launched this year, but Chinese officials hinted in the past that a few more CZ-11 launches could be flown this year. So far, the rocket has a perfect track record.

Chang Zheng 3B/E Launches Gaofen-13-02

Rounding out the launch tripleheader, on Friday, March 17, a Chang Zheng 3B/E launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center (XSLC). Liftoff time was 08:33 UTC, and the payload was a Gaofen-13-02 satellite. 

Mission patch for the Gaofen-13-02 mission. (Credit: CASC)

Gaofen-13-02 is a high-orbit optical remote sensing satellite that will be officially used for emergency disaster reduction, land census, ocean observation, environmental governance, meteorological observation, and more. This generic placeholder description has been given before without revealing the detailed satellite purpose. 

Gaofen-13 was launched in 2020 on a Chang Zheng 3B/E. It is rumored to be a newer generation of Gaofen satellites, Goafen-4. Today’s satellite is part of the same Gaofen-13 line, most likely produced by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST).

As a launch vehicle, the Chang Zheng 3B/E was used. It is one of the biggest rockets ever created by China and was developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). Its four attached side boosters lift off with a thrust of 5,923.2 kN and can lift 11,500 kg into LEO and 7,100 kg into SSO. It is reserved for the biggest payloads in the Chinese launch manifests, and so far, it has launched 89 times.

(Lead image: Liftoff of CZ-3B/E. Credit: CASC)

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