China tests first-ever low-Earth orbit constellation to rival SpaceX's Starlink

The pilot tests will help launch its 13,000 satellite constellation in the future.
Ameya Paleja
Representational picture.
Representational picture.


Researchers from Galaxy Space, a Chinese satellite maker, and several other scientific research institutions participated in the first-ever open-sea testing of China's low Earth orbit(LEO) constellation, local media service CGTN reported.

Even as China makes leaps of progress in various technological areas from hypersonic weapons to artificial intelligence, Chinese satellite operator Satcom has not been able to make a global impact. Focused on its local needs, Satcom has relied on satellites in geostationary orbits. However, as it looks to make a global presence, it is now transitioning to low-Earth orbit satellites that could rival services like SpaceX's Starlink.

China has ambitious goals of setting up a 13,000-satellite constellation in LEO that can be used to provide internet services in countries where it can exert its dominance, denting the plans of international satellite operators.

China's satellite plans

Interesting Engineering previously reported how China plans to use its Long March 5B heavy lift-off vehicle and Yuanzheng-2 second-stage propulsion technology to put satellites in low Earth orbits. Currently, the country uses its Long March-2C carrier rocket for its launches, including the ones conducted last year.

The project is being led by the China Academy of Space Technology(CAST) and the Innovation Academy for Microsatellites(IAMCAS), an agency under the aegis of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. IAMCAS has been allotted a target of launching 30 satellites by the end of the year and will be aided by firms like GalaxySpace, who have already launched satellites in low Earth orbits.

China tests first-ever low-Earth orbit constellation to rival SpaceX's Starlink
China plans to deploy a global constellation for satellite internet

LEO constellation pilot test

In March 2022, GalaxySpace launched six satellites from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center along with a broadband communication satellite that it had built and deployed in low-Earth orbit to form the country's first LEO broadband communication test constellation.

The broadband communication satellite weighs over 400 pounds(198 kgs) and together with the smaller satellites, is part of the smaller constellation dubbed "mini-spider" by the company.

The mini-constellation is built to provide uninterrupted low-orbit satellite broadband communication for more than 30 minutes at a time. The service will be used by China as an experimenting platform for satellite internet constructions.

In recent tests conducted in the South China Sea, the researchers were looking to verify the communication ability of the satellites along with those placed in high Earth orbits while also using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The testing was carried out on the "Dian Ke No.1" test ship but details of its achievements have not been revealed by the agencies involved.

In the recent past, Chinese space missions have quadrupled when compared to those conducted in the past decade. In 2022 alone, the country carried out 60 launches including a mysterious spaceplane that made global headlines.

China's plans to deploy the global network of low-Earth satellites are expected to take shape over the next five to 10 years. During this time, Elon Musk's SpaceX is also expected to deploy a similarly large number of satellites, increasing worries for astronomers about the interference of these satellites in research observations.

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