Sunday, September 20, 2015

Chinese Long March 6 Rocket Orbits a Swarm of Small Satellites on Its Maiden Launch

A new model of China's carrier rocket Long March 6 carrying 20 micro-satellites blasts off from the launch pad at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China's Shanxi Province on Sept. 20, 2015. Photo Credit: Xinhua/Yan Yan

China has successfully launched a true army of 20 micro satellites into orbit, employing its new Long March 6 booster for the first time. The lift-off took place at 7:01 p.m. EDT Saturday, Sept. 19 (23:01 GMT, 7:01 a.m. Beijing time, Sunday, Sept. 20) from the LC-16 launch pad at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China's Shanxi Province. The launch is the third orbital mission conducted by China in the span of just eight days.

The satellites were put into a Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO), around 325 miles (524 km) in altitude, inclined 97 degrees, after 15-minute flight ending in separation from the launch vehicle. The spacecraft, developed by various universities and space research institutes across China, will be used mainly for experiments.

The Long March 6 rocket is China’s new generation light-lift booster. It is fueled by liquid propellant made of liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene RP-1. The launch vehicle is the country’s first carrier rocket that uses fuel free of toxicity and pollution. It will help China to cut the costs of orbital launches.

"Using such propellant can cut costs by a great margin," explains Gao Xinhui, an official at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

The 95 ft. (29 meters) tall Long March 6 is a three-stage small satellite launcher capable of placing up to 2,380 lbs. (1,080 kg) into a SSO. The rocket has a diameter of 11 ft. (3.35 m) and weighs about 103 tons. It was developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.

The rocket’s first stage measures around 49 ft. (15 m) in length and 11 ft. (3.35 m) in diameter. It consists of a single YF-100 engine that burns LOX and kerosene) propellant, which causes less pollution compared to the UDMH/N2O4 (nitrogen tetroxide) which is currently in use. This stage burns for approximately three minutes.

The 24 ft. (7.3 m) long second stage, is 7.4 ft. (2.25 m) in diameter. It is powered by a single YF-115 engine that has the ability of performing more than one burn for injections into a variety of orbits.

The third stage measures about 5.9 ft. (1.8 m) in length and 7.4 ft. (2.25 m) in diameter. It is equipped with four YF-85 engines and is capable of making multiple burns over a long mission duration.

According to Zhang Weidong, designer-in-chief at the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, the new booster will make China more competitive on the launch market.

"We believe it will greatly boost the competitiveness of Chinese carrier rockets in the international market. The new model will also significantly improve our ability to access space," he said.

The maiden flight of the Long March 6 rocket delivered a cluster of small satellites into orbit, ranging from technology demonstration spacecraft, to student-built and amateur radio satellites.

The payload includes nine CAS-3 satellites that are part of the China Amateur Radio Satellite Constellation. They are dedicated to amateur radio missions featuring communications payloads for telemetry and beacon signals transmission. Three of them will also be used for atmospheric physics experiments.

The mission also deployed two ZDPS-2 Zheda Pixing-2 satellites. It is a dual satellite platform mission designed by Zhejiang University to provide a technology demonstration of guidance, navigation and control (GNC) strategies for spacecraft formation flying. The ZDPS-2 spacecraft will also conduct performance tests of self-designed ammonia micro-propulsion system.

The Xinyan-2 satellite, developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, is a demonstration spacecraft that features Earth observation payloads. It will also test two kinds of electric propulsion engines.

The mission’s other payload includes: LilacSat-2, built by the Harbin Institute of Technology for education, amateur radio communication and technology demonstration purposes; NUDT-Phone-Sat, developed by the National University of Defense Technology, an experimental pico satellite which will demonstrate a number of functions using smartphone technology; DCBB, built by Shenzhen Aerospace Dongfanghong HIT Satellite company, a CubeSat class spacecraft for the educational purposes; three Kongjian satellites for technology demonstration; Tiantuo-3 also built for technology demonstration purposes.

The maiden flight of Long March 6 was initially planned for Friday, Sept. 18 but was delayed one day. It was the 210th Long March mission and China’s seventh orbital launch this year. Long March is the second most used rocket family in 2015, only Soyuz boosters were employed more often, for 11 launches.

The Saturday’s flight continues the country’s busy September launch manifest. One more Chinese mission is scheduled for this month – on Sept. 25 a Long March 11 rocket will be blasted off to space, also on its maiden flight. China plans a total of 14 launches by the end of the year, not including its secretive missions that are conducted without any prior notice.

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