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China kicks off 2020 with mystery satellite launch: report

The first rocket launch of 2020 by China's space agency was a mystery payload, with state-run media and independent analysts making different claims about the goal of the mission.

Chinese media said a Long March 3B rocket sent a satellite into space from Xichang Space Center in Sichuan province (southwest China) at 10:20 a.m. EST Tuesday (1520 GMT or 11:20 p.m. Beijing time.) 

Footage from Chinese media outlet CCTV shows the rocket soaring into a black sky, with orange flames spurting out below. Media said the satellite was sent into geostationary orbit 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above Earth.

Video: Watch China's Long March 3B mystery launch soar

A Chinese Long March 3B rocket launched the TJS 5 experimental satellite into orbit from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on Jan. 7, 2020.  (Image credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation)

"It will be used in communication, radio, television and data transmission, as well as [a] high throughput technology test," said CCTV in a statement. "Throughput" refers to the amount of data moved from one place to another in a given time period. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation declared the mission a success, according to a translation of its website.

Since China usually identifies who owns or will use its satellites, and the country has remained silent about this latest launch, analysts theorize that perhaps the TJS series may have a military aspect to them.

According to SpaceflightNow, in 2017 the TJS 2 satellite launched with no specific announcement about its mission. At the time, analysts said that it could provide services such as missile detection, but this has not been confirmed.

China is expected to deploy more than 40 satellites in 2020. The last quarter of 2019 was very busy for this country, as it began to launch multiple missions within days or hours of each other. In one case, the country launched two rockets only six hours apart, at the same launching site.

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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.