China sends new trio of mysterious spy satellites into orbit

China's latest launch has put three new Yaogan spy satellites into orbit.

A Long March 2D rocket blasted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern China on Sunday (Nov. 27) at 7:23 a.m. EST (1223 GMT; 8:23 p.m. Beijing time).

The Chinese space industry (opens in new tab) and media reports (opens in new tab)suggest that the launch carried a single Yaogan 36 remote sensing satellite. However space tracking by the U.S. Space Force's 18th Space Defense Squadron, which focuses on space domain awareness, registered three payloads in orbit in roughly 300-mile-altitude (500 km) orbits.

Related: China launches mysterious Shiyan-20C satellite to orbit (video)

China's previous two launches involving Yaogan 36 satellites also saw satellite triplets sent into orbit, meaning Sunday's launch was a third group of three Yaogan 36 satellites. 

China typically describes Yaogan satellites as being designed for uses including gathering scientific data, conducting land surveys and monitoring agriculture. However, the secrecy surrounding the satellites leads analysts outside of China to believe that the satellites also have military capabilities and stakeholders.

The payload adapter which released the satellites into orbit also carries a deborbit drag sail to help bring the object back into the atmosphere sooner than otherwise possible. 

The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST),  began adding the sail to the payload adapter for its Long March 2D rocket earlier this year.

The launch was China's 54th of a busy year, and came as the country prepared for launch of the Shenzhou 15 crewed mission to the Tiangong space station.

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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).