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China picks up the launch pace with three space missions in four days

China appears to be returning to its pre-pandemic pace of launching back-to-back space missions.

Various Chinese sources indicate the country finished three successful orbital launches in four days, with the latest of the group launching from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China on Tuesday (July 6). 

China generally keeps a tight rein on space launch publicity, releasing news after the fact through its contractors and through state-supported media reports. The country's recent space activities — including a Mars rover landing and a huge, uncontrolled rocket stage fall — have caught worries from Congress and NASA alike, as this increased space presence is seen as a security risk.

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A Long March 3C rocket blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, on July 6, 2021. China successfully launched a new relay satellite from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center at 11:53 p.m. local time in Beijing. (Image credit: Wenbin/Xinhua)

The Tuesday launch (local time in Beijing) of a Long March 3C rocket featured a Tianlian data tracking and relay communications satellite that circles the Earth in a geostationary orbit, meaning it continuously hovers above the same location on Earth. 

Tianlian is the satellite series used by China's Shenzhou 12 astronauts for communications on the country's new Tiangong space station, the crew having launched there in June to stay for three months. 

China's main space contractor CASC (the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation) confirmed Tianlian's launch success an hour after liftoff in a Chinese-language report, according to SpaceNews.

The day before, on Monday (June 5), China sent aloft a fresh meteorological satellite, Fengyun 3E, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. Dramatic video shows the Long March 4C rocket shedding tiles as it left the launch pad, but the satellite's successful deployment in orbit was confirmed by Chinese media outlet CCTV.

CCTV added that Fengyun 3E, the fifth in the Fengyun 3 series of satellites, will seek to improve weather forecasts by monitoring weather conditions such as humidity and temperature. The satellite can also monitor the space environment, snow coverage, sea surface temperature and natural disasters for ongoing climate change response.

Video: China launches new weather satellite, rocket sheds tiles

A Long March 2D rocket carrying the satellite Jilin-1 01B blasts off from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in north China's Shanxi Province, on July 3, 2021. (Image credit: Zheng Taotao/Xinhua)

The other launch by China this past week took place in Taiyuan, in the country's north, on July 2. A Long March 2D rocket sent the commercial Jilin-1 Wideband-01B Earth observation satellite into sun-synchronous orbit, according to SpaceNews, which cited Chinese sources. 

Accompanying this main satellite were a few secondary passengers, including a trio of Jilin-1 Gaofen 03D high-resolution imaging satellites developed by Changguang Satellite Technology. One of them, called Xueersi, was sent into orbit on behalf of education and outreach company Beijing Xueersi Education Technology Co. to take images of Earth. Also flying aboard was the Xingshidai 10 remote sensing satellite for company Chengdu Guoxing Aerospace Technology (also called ADA Space.)

In late 2019 and early 2020, China made several sets of launches within a few hours or days but slowed down that rate in the months after the novel coronavirus pandemic was first publicly disclosed in Wuhan in December 2019.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.