China has launched a data relay satellite to support the Tiangong space station

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China has launched a data relay satellite to support the Tiangong space station

Last week, the astronauts gave a live science lesson in space to present microgravity experiments to students from across China.

The launch was China’s 401st Long March rocket launch, 51 years after the Long March 1 launched China’s first satellite, on April 24, 1970.

State media reported that the satellites are for space environment and technology verification tests. The satellites could be designed for signals intelligence or electronic intelligence purposes.

It followed just three days after China’s 400th Long March launch. A smaller Long March 4B rocket sent a pair of classified Shijian-6 (fifth group) satellites into orbit from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert at 7:11 p.m. EST Dec. 9, (0011 GMT Dec. 10, 8:11 a.m. local time).

Story Highlights

  • The satellites enable real-time communications, including video, between the ground and the Tianhe space station module, which is currently home to three Shenzhou 13 crew.

  • The Long March 3B is China’s workhorse rocket and is mainly used to launch satellites into geosynchronous orbits. It was used to build out the country’s answer to GPS, the Beidou system, and has launched two lunar landing missions, Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4.

China’s space industry celebrated the landmark launch, stating the acceleration in launch rate and improvement of overall launch capabilities in recent years.

It took 37 years to launch 100 Long March rockets, reaching that milestone in 2007. The 200th launch followed seven and a half years later, in December 2014, with the 300th launch conducted three and a half years later, in March 2019. The most recent 100 Long March launches were completed in just two years and nine months, underlining the recent, rapid increase in China’s launch activities.

Prior to this, at 11:13 p.m. EST Dec. 6 (0413 GMT Dec. 7, or 12:13 p.m. local) Jiuquan also hosted a launch by private Chinese launch firm Galactic Energy. State media Xinhua reported (opens in new tab)that the Ceres-1 solid rocket successfully sent five small satellites into orbit. The company now plans five Ceres-1 launches in 2022 for commercial customers, and is also working on the larger, more complex Pallas-1 launch vehicle which will use liquid propulsion.

2021 has been a record-breaking year for Chinese launch activity and the Tianlian 2 (02) launch was China’s 50th of the year. The country’s previous record for launches inside a calendar year was 39, reached in 2018 and 2020