China launches mysterious Earth observation satellites

rocket blasts off atop a white plume with blue sky behind
A Chinese Ceres-1 rocket carrying five Jilin-1 Gaofen 03D satellites launches from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Nov. 16, 2022. (Image credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

China sent yet another clutch of Gaofen Earth observation satellites to space on Wednesday (Nov. 16).

A Ceres-1 rocket carrying four Gaofen 03D satellites launched Wednesday at 2:20 a.m. EST (0720 GMT; 2:20 p.m. local time) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. Xinhua, a state-run media outlet, confirmed that the satellites deployed successfully.

"The payloads lifted by the rocket will be used to provide commercial remote sensing services," Xinhua reported (opens in new tab), adding that this is the fourth flight of Ceres-1, which is built by the state-supported Beijing company Galactic Energy.

Space companies in China are generally not independent entities like in the United States or most other countries. Rather, they tend to be offshoots of the China National Space Administration and the Chinese government.

Related: China's Long March rocket family: History and photos

The Gaofen series forms part of the China High-resolution Earth Observation System, which aims to capture high-resolution imagery of our planet's surface. But the uses of the Gaofen satellites remain somewhat nebulous. 

During past launches, Chinese state media outlets have said that Gaofen satellites assist with urban planning, road network design, land surveys, crop yields and disaster relief. Capabilities of the Gaofen series include microwave, optical and radar remote sensing, Chinese officials have said. But the South China Morning Post (opens in new tab) has suggested there may be military applications of the satellites as well.

Wednesday's launch was China's 53rd of 2022, bringing the country within three liftoffs of matching its 2021 record of 56. The country generally operates independently of the international space community; NASA is restricted by the U.S. government in making bilateral agreements with China, although NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently said that collaboration with China is "up to China."

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace