China launches military spy satellite trio into orbit

A Chinese Long March 4C rocked launched Friday with three Yaogan 31 military surveillance satellites. Credit: Xinhua

China launched three Yaogan military satellites Friday on a Long March 4C rocket, adding to a fleet of spacecraft independent analysts believe are designed to spy on naval forces.

The three Yaogan 31-series satellites lifted off aboard a three-stage, liquid-fueled Long March 4C rocket at 0447 GMT Friday (11:47 p.m. EST Thursday), according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., or CASC, China’s largest state-run aerospace contractor.

The government-owned company said the Long March 4C rocket launched from the Jiuquan space base in the Gobi Desert of northwestern China. The launcher headed southeast from Jiuquan to place the Yaogan 31 satellites into orbit.

The Long March 4C deployed the trio of Yaogan 31 satellites into an orbit roughly 680 miles (1,100 kilometers) in altitude, with an inclination of 63.4 degrees to the equator, according to publicly-available U.S. military tracking data.

Chinese officials declared the launch a complete success. It was China’s second orbital launch of 2021.

The Yaogan 31 satellites will be “mainly used for electromagnetic environment detection,” CASC said in a statement.

The trio of Yaogan 31 military payloads are believed by Western analysts to be maritime reconnaissance satellites, helping Chinese military authorities track foreign naval movements. China uses the Yaogan name as a cover name for military satellites.

The U.S. military catalogued six objects left in orbit after the Long March 4C launch. One of the objects is the rocket’s upper stage, and three are the Yaogan 31 satellites. It was not immediately clear if the two additional objects are smaller satellites launched on the same mission, or space debris.

Six previous Long March 4C missions in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2018 carried similar naval surveillance satellites into space. All of those missions used Long March 4C rockets launched from Jiuquan to place satellite triplets into the same 680-mile-high orbit inclined 63.4 degrees to the equator.

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