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China just launched three more Yaogan 31 reconnaissance satellites to orbit

China successfully sent three reconnaissance satellites into orbit Tuesday (Feb. 23), according to media reports.

A Long March 4C rocket carrying the Yaogan-31 satellites flew into space from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 9:22 p.m. EST (0222 GMT, or 10:22 a.m. local time Wednesday, Feb. 24), according to a report from China's state news provider CCTV (opens in new tab).

"Having entered their planned orbits, the satellites will be used for electromagnetic environment surveys and other related technology tests," CCTV added in the short report.

Video: Blastoff! China launches trio of Yaogan-31 reconnaissance satellites (opens in new tab)
Related: China is planning to launch at least 3 rockets from the sea this year (opens in new tab)

A Chinese Long March 4C rocket lifts off from the  Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, carrying three Yaogan 31 Group 3 satellites to orbit. (Image credit: CASC)

Western defense analysts have suggested the Yaogan series is meant for the People's Liberation Army for uses such as surveillance, intelligence or reconnaissance that — considering their orbits — may be similar to satellites that track vessels through radio transmissions, according to Space News (opens in new tab).

The satellites may include capabilities to study targets in optical wavelengths or synthetic aperture radar, and could carry electronic intelligence payloads, Space News added. Past launches put the Yaogan satellites at orbits of roughly 680 miles (1,100 kilometers) in altitude and inclined by 63 degrees, passing over maritime regions such as the South Shetland Islands.

This is the third clutch of Yaogan satellites to launch from China. The second group went to space (opens in new tab) just a few weeks ago, on Jan. 28, according to contractor China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. The first group reportedly launched in April 2018 (opens in new tab) in similar orbits, allowing China to shorten the time between when a particular region is visible under the growing constellation.

China has had a busy February in space, including the successful arrival of Tianwen-1 in Mars orbit and preparation for a Mars landing (opens in new tab), reports that its first space station module (opens in new tab) is preparing for a flight, and ongoing examinations of rocks on the lunar far side (opens in new tab) by the Yutu 2 rover and Chang'e 4 lander. About a month ago, a launch by China's iSpace (opens in new tab) failed to reach orbit.

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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. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, 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. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, 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.