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, 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 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?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, 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 a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: