China has 3 new spy satellites in orbit after Long March 4C launch

The China National Space Administration launched another trio of satellites into orbit late Friday (March 12), adding to its network of spy satellites observing regions nearby Chinese territory.

The fresh set of Yaogan 31-series satellites launched at 9:19 p.m. EST Friday (0219 GMT Saturday or 10:39 a.m. local time) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, near the Gobi desert, according to local reports.

A short report from Chinese state media outlet Xinhua said that the satellites deployed safely from the Long March-4C rocket that carried them to orbit. "The satellites will be used for electromagnetic environment surveys and other related technology tests," the report stated.

Video: Watch a Chinese rocket launch 3 satellites and shed debris

A Long March 4C rocket launched March 14 2021 with three new spy satellites on board.  (Image credit: CASC)
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While China hasn't said much about the purpose of these satellites, outside observers have said the Yaogan-31 series are for military purposes, picking up radio signals from foreign ships. The satellites include optical, radar and signal intelligence instruments on board, according to Spaceflight Now.

"The Long March 4C deployed the Yaogan 31 trio in an orbit approximately 680 miles (1,100 kilometers) in altitude at an inclination of 63.4 degrees to the equator, according to publicly-available U.S. military satellite tracking data," Spaceflight Now added. 

The orbits of the March 12 satellites appear to match two previous launches of Yaogan-31 satellites on Jan. 29 and Feb. 24, the report added. Another clutch of satellites launched successfully in April 2018. All of these satellites share a similar orbit, but the additional launches likely decrease the revisit times when a particular region is visible underneath the orbit of the satellites, which carries them over maritime regions such as the South Shetland Islands.

China has been busy with its space operations so far in 2021. We've seen the successful arrival of China's Tianwen-1 mission in Mars orbit and preparation for a Mars landing, the study of rocks on the lunar far side by the Yutu 2 rover and Chang'e 4 lander, and reports that the nation's first space station module will be launched fairly soon.

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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: