China launches new batch of Yaogan reconnaissance satellites

A Long March 2D rocket lifts off from Xichang spaceport Sept. 17, 2023, carrying a second group of Yaogan-39 triplets. Credit: Ourspace

A Long March 2D rocket lifts off from Xichang spaceport Sept. 17, 2023, carrying a second group of Yaogan-39 triplets. Credit: Ourspace

By Andrew Jones,
Published by SpaceNews, 18 September 2023

HELSINKI — China added to its recent flurry of reconnaissance satellite launches early Sunday, sending three new Yaogan-39 spacecraft into orbit.

A hypergolic Long March 2D rocket lifted off at 12:13 a.m. Eastern (0413 UTC) Sept. 17, rising into overcast skies above the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) confirmed launch success around half an hour after liftoff, revealing the payload to be a Yaogan-39 satellite. Like the first Yaogan-39 series launch Aug. 31 however, the mission carried a trio of satellites.

Four objects from the launch were tracked in roughly circular 495-kilometer-altitude orbits inclined by 35 degrees.

The launch was CASC’s 30th of the year, marking a halfway point in the state-owned space contractor’s plans to launch more than 200 spacecraft on more than 60 launches. That the launch was China’s 43rd orbital mission of 2023 overall also highlights the growing role of the country’s emerging commercial sector.

Sunday’s launch also followed launches of Yaogan satellites on July 26 (Yaogan-36 Group 05) Aug. 31 (Yaogan-39 (01)), Sept. 6 (Yaogan-33 (03)) and Sept. 10 (Yaogan-40 (01)). 

China reveals little information on its Yaogan (meaning “remote sensing”) missions. Their classified nature and groupings in specific orbits lead Western analysts to believe the series is at least partly military in nature, providing a range of reconnaissance capabilities. 

Yaogan satellites are thought to variously carry optical, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and other sensors. Some satellites are described generically as being for “electromagnetic environment detection and related technical tests.” This may indicate the satellites are for electronic intelligence gathering. 

The Yaogan series perform different roles. Some groups of Yaogan satellites, such as Yaogan-31, could be analogous to U.S. Department of Defense Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) satellite triplets. Other groups, in orbits with inclinations of 35 degrees, as spaced 60 or 120 degrees apart, providing near constant surveillance over areas of security concern close to China.

The growth of Chinese remote sensing capabilities has been noted in the United States. The U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission last month issued a solicitation for an unclassified report on China’s remote sensing technologies and applications and overall objectives.

The report would aim to “identify and assess Chinese investments in U.S. advanced remote sensor companies; and examine China’s use and development of advanced remote sensors for military purposes,” according to the request.

China has also launched a number of classified Ludikancha series satellites. These are considered to be very high resolution Earth observation satellites for military purposes.

The country’s commercial sector is also building optical and SAR satellites. Late last year Changguang Satellite Technology said it planned to more than double the planned size of its Jilin-1 constellation. The development followed Chinese attention on the use of commercial satellite imagery in the Ukraine.

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