China launches three military satellites, tests new rocket steering fins

A Long March 2C rocket lifted off at 0357 GMT Friday (11:57 p.m. EDT Thursday) with three Yaogan 30 satellites for the Chinese military. The grid fins are visible on the gray section of the rocket at the top of the first stage. Credit: Xinhua

China launched a Long March 2C rocket Friday with three Yaogan 30 military satellites, and tested new grid fins on the Long March’s first stage to help guide the spent booster away from populated areas.

The two-stage Long March 2C rocket lifted off from the Xichang space center in southwestern China’s Sichuan province at 0357 GMT Friday (11:57 p.m. EDT Thursday), according to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the country’s lead developer of satellite launchers.

Liftoff occurred at 11:57 a.m. Friday Beijing time.

Tracking data published by the U.S. military indicated the Long March 2C rocket achieved a 370-mile-high (600-kilometer) orbit with an inclination of 35 degrees to the equator. The orbit matches that of four previous triplets of Yaogan 30 satellites in late 2017 and early 2018, which also flew into space aboard Long March 2C rockets from Xichang.

Like it is predecessors, the exact purpose of the fifth group of Yaogan 30 satellites — designated Yaogan 30-05 — remains a secret. Information released by Chinese state media said the spacecraft are designed for “remote sensing” missions, and will be “used for electromagnetic environment detection and related technological tests.”

The Yaogan series of satellites are believed to be operated by the Chinese military for intelligence-gathering purposes.

Some analysts suggested the 12 Yaogan 30-01, 30-02, 30-03 and 30-04 satellites launched in 2017 and 2018 could be testing new electronic eavesdropping equipment or helping the Chinese military track U.S. and other foreign naval deployments.

But details about the spacecraft and their missions have not been disclosed by the Chinese government.

China’s military has another satellite named Yaogan 30, but it is in polar orbit and believed to be a high-resolution imaging spacecraft.

Images of the Long March 2C rocket launched Friday showed aerosurfaces attached to the interstage structure atop the first stage booster.

The fins have not flown on past Long March missions, and their appearance resembles the grid fins that fly on SpaceX’s Falcon rocket boosters.

In a post-launch statement, Chinese launch authorities said the mission tested the function of new aerodynamic control surfaces to help steer the booster on descent.

The new system is designed to control where the booster falls back to the ground. Rockets launched from China’s inland spaceports typically drop their stages, still containing toxic propellant vapors, near villages and towns.

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