China successfully lifted off its flagship Long March 3B booster carrying a military communications satellite. The spacecraft, designated ChinaSat-1C was launched at 12:46 p.m. EDT (16:46 GMT) on Wednesday, Dec. 9, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, located in Sichuan province in southwest China.
The launch was declared successful by Chinese officials about two hours after the liftoff. However, the mission is shrouded in secrecy with no prior notice released before the launch and no technical details available on the satellite. This suggests the spacecraft’s military nature.
After the liftoff, the Long March 3B rocket firing its four boosters and large core stage completed a short vertical ascent and then started heading in the south-east direction. The shutdown of the boosters occurred about two minutes into the flight and they were jettisoned one minute later. The spacecraft was deployed approximately 26 minutes after the launch.
The satellite was deliver into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), where it will serve for up to 15 years.
ChinaSat-1C is probably the second satellite of the second generation Fenghuo geostationary tactical military communication satellites. Fenghuo satellites are used to provide tactical communications for Chinese military forces in the form of secure data and voice links between ground terminals. The first satellite in the series, ChinaSat-20, was launched in 2003.
The Fenghuo spacecraft are based on the DFH-4 satellite platform. The DFH-4 bus consists of a propulsion module, service modules and solar arrays. Its dimensions are 7.7 by 6.9 by 11.8 feet (2.36 by 2.1 by 3.6 meters), with a mass of 5.2 tons. It has an output power of 10.5 kW and can be equipped with C, Ku, Ka and L transponders.
This platform is designed to host high-power and high-capacity communications payloads for different applications such as direct broadcasting, tracking and data relay, mobile communications.
The three-stage Long March 3B rocket used in Wednesday’s flight is currently the most powerful Chinese rocket in service. The 180-foot (55-meter) tall booster is capable of launching up to 12 metric tons of payload into low-Earth orbit (LEO) or 5 metric tons of cargo into GTO.
The 3B/E version that was employed for the mission is an enhanced variant of the rocket, featuring an enlarged first stage and boosters. This version was brought into service in 2007 to increase the rocket’s GTO cargo capacity and lift heavier geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) communications satellites.
Thanks to the ChinaSat-1C liftoff, China continues its impressive streak of successful launches this year. So far, the country has conducted 17 missions to orbit in 2015 – all of them apparently successful. Only Russia and the U.S. performed more launches this year, 23 and 19 respectively. Wednesday’s flight was also the 220th mission of the Long March carrier rocket series.
China plans two more launches by the end of 2015. The next flight is scheduled to take place on Dec. 18 when a Long March 2D rocket is scheduled to send the DAMPE (DArk Matter Particle Explorer) spacecraft into space. It will be the country’s first-ever dark matter probe. The spacecraft is designed to detect electrons and photons with unprecedented energy resolution in order to identify possible dark matter signatures.
The exact date of the last Chinese launch this year hasn’t been announced yet. The rocket tasked with delivering Gaofen-4 Earth-observing satellite into orbit – will be the Long March 3B booster. Given that many of China’s launches are shrouded in secrecy, the Gaofen-4 satellite could be launched earlier without any prior notice.