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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.

"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
Related: China is planning to launch at least 3 rockets from the sea this year

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.

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 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 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, reports that its first space station module is preparing for a flight, and ongoing examinations of rocks on the lunar far side by the Yutu 2 rover and Chang'e 4 lander. About a month ago, a launch by China's iSpace failed to reach orbit.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.