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
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: