China launched two classified military satellites Wednesday on top of a Long March 2C rocket augmented by a restartable upper stage.
The Long March 2C launcher lifted off from the Jiuquan space center in the Gobi Desert of northwestern China at 3:43 a.m. EDT (0743 GMT) Wednesday, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., the country’s primary state-owned aerospace contractor.
Liftoff occurred at 3:43 p.m. Beijing time.
The payloads on the mission were two Yaogan 32-class military satellites, Chinese officials said. In a post-launch statement, CASC called the payloads “remote sensing” satellites, but offered no additional details.
The Chinese government uses the Yaogan name as a cover for military spy satellites. Independent analysts believe some types of Yaogan satellites carry high-resolution optical surveillance instruments and radars to monitor Earth’s surface day and night, supplying daily imagery to Chinese intelligence agencies and military commanders.
The purpose of the two Yaogan 32 satellites launched Thursday remains a mystery. The first pair of Yaogan 32-type satellites launched in 2018 on a previous Long March 2C rocket.
U.S. military tracking data showed the two Yaogan 32 satellites deployed into a near-circular polar orbit stretching as high as 436 miles (703 kilometers), with an inclination of 98.1 degrees to the equator.
The liquid-fueled Long March 2C rocket, which usually flies in a two-stage configuration, carried an additional upper stage on Wednesday’s mission. The Yuanzheng 1S upper stage is designed for multiple engine firings to place payloads into different orbits.
Yuanzheng is the Chinese word for expedition.
With the addition of the Yuanzheng 1S upper stage, the Long March 2C rocket can place a payload of up to two metric tons (about 4,400 pounds) into sun-synchronous orbit, a popular destination for Earth observation spacecraft. Without the upper stage, the Long March 2C’s lift capability to the same type of orbit is 1.2 metric tons (about 2,650 pounds).
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