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China's Radar Satellite Constellation Is Growing. And It's Looking at Earth

With its 398th Long March launch.

China's Radar Satellite Constellation Is Growing. And It's Looking at Earth
China's Long March vehicle rocketing to space. Xinhua / China

Ready or not, a new superpower is watching.

China launched a Gaofen 3 C-band satellite slated for use as a remote sensing and Earth-monitoring platform, according to an initial report from the state-owned news service Xinhua. The launch went forward on November 22 at 6:45 PM EST, from the country's South Launch Site-2 (SLS-2) within the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC).

But with the spike in space war tactics between United States- and China-owned satellites, in addition to Russia blowing up its own satellite with a missile and triggering an international crisis, the observations could extend beyond the monitoring and prevention of natural disasters.

China's new satellite is entering sun-synchronous orbit

The Gaofen-3 satellites are built to last for up to eight years, and come with a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), in addition to a data transmission system that adjusts its orientation in space via Control Moment Gyros (CMGs), according to a report from NASASpaceflight.com. China's Academy of Space and Technology (CAST) constructs the Gaofen 3 series, and CAST is part of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). These entities serve as China's primary spacecraft manufacturing and development location, and were included in the process of the country's first successful satellite launch (Dong Fang Hong I).

The new satellite was lifted into orbit by the Chang Zheng 4C (also called the Long March 4C, internationally). It's roughly 150 ft (45.8 m) tall, has a diameter of roughly 11 ft (3.35 m), and lifts off with a mass of roughly 275 tons (250,000 kg) — the lion's share of which is the first stage of the rocket. The Long March 4C is primarily employed to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO), in addition to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) missions. This latest satellite was one of the latter. The rocket can lift nearly 5 tons (4,200 kg) into LEO, and roughly 3 tons (2,800 kg) into SSO. Wednesday's payload was roughly 3 tons (2,779 kg).

China launched nearly 50 satellites in 2021

The latest launch will join a larger constellation of satellites as part of China's High-Resolution Earth Observation System (CHEOS), initially proposed in 2006, and beginning in 2010. The aim of CHEOS is to enhance and upgrade the country's capacity to observe Earth from Space. China even founded a new agency to oversee and operate the program, called the Earth Observation System and Data Center — China National Space Administration (EOSDC-CNSA), which, is included in a larger "One belt one road" regional development campaign to map the world's geography and environments, ostensibly for disaster prevention and monitoring. Assuming this monitoring is limited to the study, prevention, and coordination of response to natural disasters and environmental damage, this actually sounds like a good idea.

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While the U.S. isn't an exception to this rule, it's not the job of superpower nations to monitor and coordinate international efforts in the face of natural disasters. But in most cases, this could be great for rising water levels, damaged ecosystems (which are multiplying at unfathomable speeds), and, say major floods. But considering the surge in space-faring nations' execution of space war tactics, it's not hard to imagine China's growing constellation of satellites is observing more than nature. Whether or not this is the case, it was the 45th mission China launched this year, and two more are slated for this week: the Ceres-1 launch on Wednesday, followed by a Chang Zheng 3B/E, on Nov. 26.

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