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China launches mysterious new spy satellite

Liftoff of a Long March 4C rocket from Jiuquan carrying the Yaogan 33 (02) satellite on September 2, 2022.
Liftoff of a Long March 4C rocket from Jiuquan carrying the Yaogan 33 (02) satellite on September 2, 2022. (Image credit: CNSA/OurSpace)

China launched a mysterious spy satellite that will "monitor land, crop yield and natural disasters" but could also gather military intelligence, analysts think.

The Yaogan 33 (02) satellite lifted off atop China's Long March 4C rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 7:44 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2, (2344 GMT, or 7:44 a.m. Beijing time on Sept. 3) in what was the east-Asia's space power's 35th successful launch this year. 

The rocket blasted into the sky as distinctive colored exhaust patterns trailed below, with plumes of dust and orange-brown smoke billowing around the launch tower. 

The U.S. Space Force picked up two new objects in orbit associated with the launch from Jiuquan: the new satellite in a 428 by 423 mile (688 by 680 kilometers) near-polar orbit and the upper stage of the Long March 4C orbiting with a lower perigee, or closer approach to Earth, of 306 miles (492 km).

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Little is known about Yaogan 33, a new, classified series of remote sensing satellites. Chinese state-controlled media state (opens in new tab)that the spacecraft will be used for "science experiments, census of national land resources, crop yield estimation and disaster prevention."

Western space analysts suggest, however, that the Yaogan series satellites serve both civil and military users in China. Last month China launched new batches of Yaogan 35 satellites, which could be used for Earth observation tasks or signals intelligence gathering.

Nasaspaceflight reported that the previous satellite in the 33 series, Yaogan 33 (01), launched in late 2020, was likely a space-based synthetic aperture radar (SAR) system which can image through clouds and during the night. The Yaogan 33 (01) and (02) are now in similar orbits.

An attempted launch of what could have been the first Yaogan 33 series satellite ended in failure in 2019, SpaceNews reported (opens in new tab)in 2019.

China has conducted 35 launches so far in 2022, with the country’s main space contractor, CASC, aiming to launch more than 50 times this year. The United States has launched 50 times as of Sept. 5.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI (opens in new tab).