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China Gains New Flexible Launch Capabilities With First Sea Launch

HELSINKI — China successfully launched a Long March 11 solid rocket from a sea launch platform Wednesday, bringing its burgeoning space program new, flexible launch capabilities.

The Long March 11 solid propellant light launch vehicle lifted off from a mobile launch platform in the Yellow Sea at 12:06 a.m. Eastern, with launch success declared within half an hour.

The 20.8-meter-long, 2-meter-diameter and 58-metric-ton four-stage rocket lifted seven satellites into 600-kilometer altitude orbits.

Related: China Aces Its 1st Rocket Launch at Sea, Puts 7 Satellites in Orbit (Video)

The satellites included Bufeng-1A and B, designed by the China Academy of Space Technology to monitor ocean wind fields and improve typhoon monitoring, Xiaoxiang-1-04, a small satellite developed by Changsha-based private firm Spacety, an experimental communications satellite, Tianqi-3, developed by Guodian Gaoke, and two 'Tianxiang' Ka-band communications test satellites for the China Electronic Technology Group.

The final payload, the Jilin-1 03A high resolution optical satellite for Changguang Satellite Technology Co. Ltd., a commercial offshoot of the state-owned Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has a mass of 42 kilograms. The company's first optical satellites, launched in October 2015, had masses of 420 kilograms.

The mission was the first sea-based launch globally since multinational spacecraft launch service provider Sea Launch in May 2014.

Leena Pivovarova, an analyst at consulting firm Northern Sky Research, told SpaceNews that the move fits into wider developments, with the small launch industry as a whole trending toward offering more flexible launch solutions.

"We are seeing several emerging launch actors developing responsive launch capabilities in different ways, such as designing mobile spaceports or remote mission ops centers," Pivovarova said.

"For example, players like Virgin Orbit/VoxSpace will not be tied to a specific runway, and will be able to offer launches to any orbit and destination without the traditional launch constraints. The sea launch of Long March 11 will demonstrate a similar mobility factor, specifically being able to hit any orbit without being constrained to a set geographic area."

Sea launches also allow low-inclination launches, with the greater rotational speed of the Earth near the equator meaning lower fuel requirements or higher payload capability.

Rapid response, risk reduction 

The newly developed capability also provides benefits to range of space sectors.

"Rapid response capabilities are important to the commercial industry, but are especially significant to the government and defense sector. The mobility factor enables quick and somewhat stealthy launches, which is of special interest to governments' strategic interests," Pivovarova notes.

In China's case, sea launch capabilities could help mitigate safety risks to its civilian population. Three of China's four national launch centers are located deep inland, meaning rocket stages fall to ground rather than the seas, and often threaten populated areas. Evacuations of areas within rocket stage drop zones also raise the economic costs of launch.

Further innovations and technologies such as vertical takeoff, vertical landing and parafoils are being developed by China's main space contractor to reduce risk, while emerging private companies may also eventually offer solutions.

The rocket for the Wednesday launch was named "CZ-11 WEY" ('CZ' standing for Changzheng or 'Long March'), following an agreement between the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the launch vehicle developer, the China Space Foundation and a Chinese automobile producer Great Wall Motors, which owns the WEY brand.

The launch was the seventh for the Long March 11, the only solid propellant rocket of the series, and the 306th Long March launch overall. It was the tenth launch in 2019 for China, which is planning more than 30 launches this year. The country's previous launch, on May 22 from Taiyuan, ended in failure.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.   

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