A secretmilitary payload successfully launched aboard a Long March rocket earlyWednesday, continuing a feverish pace of Chinese space activity that includes amysterious orbital rendezvous, an upcoming lunar probe and preps for continuedhuman missions.
It was thefifth launch in barely 50 days for China, and the second mission in that periodlofting a clandestine Yaogan reconnaissance satellite.
Wednesday's launchbegan with the blastoff of a LongMarch 2D rocket at 0242 GMT (10:42 p.m. EDT Tuesday) from the Jiuquan spacecenter in the desert of northwestern China, according to the state-run Xinhuanews agency.
It was 10:42a.m. Beijing time.
The135-foot-tall launch vehicle placed Yaogan 11 and two smaller satellites on apath nearly 400 miles above Earth.
The Yaogan11 payload orbited Wednesday will conduct scientific experiments, survey landresources, estimate crop yields and contribute to natural disaster responseefforts, Xinhua reported.
But the Yaogansatellite series are believed to provide the Chinese military withhigh-resolution reconnaissance imagery through electro-optical cameras andnight-vision radar systems.
Thesuccessful rocket mission marked the 9th time China launched a satellite so farthis year, and the country's government has several more flights on the booksthrough the end of 2010.
The LongMarch manifest will continue with the expected launch of the Chang'e 2 orbiterto the moon in late September or early October.
Next year,China plans to send its Tiangong1 module to space. A series of unmanned and manned Shenzhou capsules willvisit the module, forming a modest space station for long-duration researchmissions by Chinese astronauts.
But moreChinese space developments are occurring 350 miles up, where two technologydemonstration satellites have been flying in close formation since the middleof August. [ChineseSatellites Bump During Secret Maneuvers]
Amateursatellite observers spotted the SJ-12 spacecraft approaching an older platformnamed SJ-6F, computing the objects approached within 200 meters, or 656 feet,of each other, based on published U.S. Air Force tracking data.
Thesatellites flew apart and closed their distance again in late August. Sincethen, analysts say, the Shijian spacecraft have maintained a separation of justa few miles, demonstrating stable station-keeping capabilities.
Chinesespace officials have been silent on the matter, although state media repeated aRussian news report citing the observations of Igor Lissov, a respected spaceexpert who released one of the earliest accounts of the rendezvous in August.
- ChineseSatellites Bump During Secret Maneuvers
- MakingHistory: China's First Human Spaceflight
- China'sNext Moon Probe to Be Faster, Better Than First
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Stephen Clark is the Editor of Spaceflight Now, a web-based publication dedicated to covering rocket launches, human spaceflight and exploration. He joined the Spaceflight Now team in 2009 and previously wrote as a senior reporter with the Daily Texan. You can follow Stephen's latest project at SpaceflightNow.com and on Twitter.