China launches spy satellite triplet for third time this year

A Long March 4C rocket lifts off Saturday with three Yaogan 31 military satellites. Credit: Xinhua

Three Chinese military satellites launched Saturday aboard a Long March 4C rocket, joining six others China has sent into orbit since the start of the year on ocean surveillance missions.

The three Yaogan 31-series satellites took off at 0219 GMT Saturday (9:19 p.m. EST Friday) from the Jiuquan launch base in the Gobi Desert of northwestern China, according to a statement from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., or CASC, the state-owned prime contractor for the Chinese space program.

The three-stage, liquid-fueled Long March 4C rocket launched at 10:19 a.m. Beijing time Saturday.

The Long March 4C deployed the Yaogan 31 trio in an orbit approximately 680 miles (1,100 kilometers) in altitude at an inclination of 63.4 degrees to the equator, according to publicly-available U.S. military satellite tracking data. The circumstances of the launch match two Long March 4C missions Jan. 29 and Feb. 24 that also carried three Yaogan 31 satellites into space.

In a post-launch statement, CASC said the Yaogan 31 satellites will collect electromagnetic data.

The Yaogan name is used for Chinese military satellites. Yaogan satellites carry high-resolution optical, radar, and signals intelligence instruments, collecting information for analysis by Chinese military and intelligence agencies.

Experts on China’s space program believe the Yaogan 31 satellites are designed to detect radio signals to help locate foreign naval forces. Before the three Yaogan 31 launches this year, China sent a similar trio of Yaogan 31 satellites into orbit in April 2018 on a Long March 4C rocket.

Before 2018, China launched five Long March 4C missions with Yaogan triplets into the same 680-mile-high orbit used by the Yaogan 31 series. Those flights may have deployed earlier generations of maritime surveillance satellites.

Saturday’s Long March 4C flight was China’s seventh orbital launch attempt this year. Six of the missions were successful..

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