Chinese Long March 6 rocket orbits swarm of small satellites on maiden flight
China has successfully launched a true army of 20 micro-satellites into orbit, employing its new Long March 6 booster for the first time. Lift-off took place on Saturday, Sept. 19, at 7:01 p.m. EDT (23:01 GMT; 7:01 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 20, Beijing time) from the LC-16 launch complex at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China’s Shanxi Province. This marked the third launch in just eight days that the nation has carried out.
After a 15-minute flight, ending in separation from the launch vehicle, the satellites were inserted into a Sun-synchronous Orbit (SSO) – around 325 miles (524 km) in altitude, inclined 97 degrees. The spacecraft, developed by various universities and space research institutes across China, will be used mainly to carry out on-orbit experiments.
The Long March 6 rocket is China’s new generation light-lift booster. It is a liquid-propellant rocket fueled by kerosene RP-1 with liquid oxygen (LOX) as the oxidizer. The launch vehicle is described by the country as being the first carrier rocket that uses fuel free of toxicity and pollution. China hopes it will help the nation to cut the expenses tied to sending payloads aloft.
“Using such propellant can cut costs by a great margin,” explains Gao Xinhui, an official at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.
The 95 ft. (29 meters) tall Long March 6 is a three-stage small satellite launcher capable of placing up to 2,380 lbs. (1,080 kg) into a SSO. The launch vehicle has a diameter of 11 ft. (3.35 m) and weighs about 103 metric tons. It was developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.
The rocket’s first stage measures around 49 ft. (15 m) in length and 11 ft. (3.35 m) in diameter. It consists of a single YF-100 engine that burns kerosene and LOX propellant, which causes less pollution compared to the UDMH/N2O4 (nitrogen tetroxide) that is currently in use. This stage burns for approximately three minutes.
The 24 ft. (7.3 m) long second stage measures some 7.4 ft. (2.25 m) in diameter. It is powered by a single YF-115 engine that has the ability of performing more than one burn for injections into a variety of orbits.
The third stage measures about 5.9 ft. (1.8 m) in length and 7.4 ft. (2.25 m) in diameter. It is equipped with four YF-85 engines and is capable of making multiple burns over a long mission duration.
According to Zhang Weidong, designer-in-chief at the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, the new booster will make China more competitive on the launch market.
“We believe it will greatly boost the competitiveness of Chinese carrier rockets in the international market. The new model will also significantly improve our ability to access space,” he said.
As noted, the maiden flight of the Long March 6 rocket delivered a cluster of small satellites into orbit, ranging from technology demonstration spacecraft to student-built and amateur radio satellites.
The payload included nine CAS-3 satellites that are part of the China Amateur Radio Satellite Constellation. They are dedicated to amateur radio missions featuring communications payloads for telemetry and beacon signals transmission. Three of them will also be used for atmospheric physics experiments.
The mission also deployed two ZDPS-2 Zheda Pixing-2 satellites. It is a dual-satellite platform mission designed by Zhejiang University to provide technology demonstration of guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) strategies for spacecraft formation flying. The ZDPS-2 spacecraft will also conduct performance tests of self-designed ammonia micro-propulsion system.
The Xinyan-2 satellite, developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, is a demonstration spacecraft that features Earth-observation payloads. It will also test two kinds of electric propulsion engines.
The mission’s other payload includes the following: LilacSat-2, built by the Harbin Institute of Technology for education, amateur radio communication, and technology demonstration purposes; NUDT-Phone-Sat, developed by the National University of Defense Technology, an experimental pico-satellite which will demonstrate a number of functions using smartphone technology; DCBB, built by Shenzhen Aerospace Dongfanghong HIT Satellite company, a CubeSat-class spacecraft for the educational purposes; three Kongjian satellites for technology demonstration; and Tiantuo-3, also built for technology demonstration purposes.
The maiden flight of the Long March 6 was initially scheduled to take place on Friday, Sept. 18, but was delayed by one day. Saturday’s flight marked the 210th Long March mission overall and China’s seventh orbital launch this year. Long March has become the second most utilized rocket family of 2015. For this year, only Soyuz boosters were employed more often, for a total of 11 launches.
Saturday’s flight continues the country’s busy September launch manifest. One more Chinese mission is currently planned for this month – China currently plans to launch a Long March 11 booster on Sept. 25 – also on its maiden flight. China plans a total of 14 launches by the end of the year, not including its secretive missions that are conducted without any prior notice.
China has pursued an aggressive space program, becoming the third nation to send an astronaut (referred to as “taikonauts”) to orbit. The nation launched its Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace”) on an uncrewed Long March 2F/G booster on Sept. 29, 2011. The Chinese National Space Administration sent its Chang’e-3 lunar lander, with the Yutu rover, to the lunar surface of the Moon in 2013 – with plans to send crews to tread the dusty lunar regolith by 2025.
Video courtesy of CCTV
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