Spaceflight Insider

China conducts surprise launch of its first Tiantong-1 satellite

Long March 3B launch

An archive photo of a previous Long March 3B launch. Photo Credit: Xinhua

China conducted a surprise liftoff of its flagship Long March 3B booster on Friday, August 5, carrying the country’s first Tiantong mobile communications satellite. Launch of the rocket took place at 12:22 p.m. EDT (16:22 GMT) from the LC3 Launch Complex at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center located in Sichuan Province.

Although the success of the launch was confirmed shortly after liftoff by Chinese state-run media, there was no official indication of the upcoming mission ahead of the event. Some witnesses confused the launch with an earthquake as they reported, via social media sites, rumbling and shaking windows.

The Long March 3B rocket started its short vertical ascent lasting just a few seconds until it began pitching and rolling toward a southeasterly direction in order to fly over the Pacific Ocean. The rocket’s four boosters burned for about two minutes and 20 seconds and were then detached from the launch vehicle.

Long March 3B rocket lifts off with the Tiantong-1 No.1 satellite from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on Aug. 5, 2016.

A Long March 3B rocket lifts off with the Tiantong-1 No.1 satellite from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on Aug. 5, 2016. Photo Credit:

Afterward, the rocket, powered by the second stage, flew for nearly three minutes until the engines cut off, as expected. The separation of the second stage occurred at approximately five-and-a-half minutes into the flight.

Next, the third stage assumed control over the flight, tasked with deploying the Tiantong-1 spacecraft into orbit. The separation of the satellite took place about 26 minutes after liftoff.

The satellite, designated Tiantong-1 No.1, is first in the series. According to official media reports, the spacecraft is an S-Band mobile communications satellite developed by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and will be operated by China Telecom. However, the secretive nature of the launched sparked some rumors this satellite could be employed for military purposes.

Chinese media outlets report Tiantong-1 No.1 will operate in a geosynchronous orbit (GEO), delivering mobile communications services to China and to the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

“It is the first satellite of China’s home-made satellite mobile telecom system, and a key part of the country’s space information infrastructure,” Xinhua press agency reports.

The three-stage Long March 3B rocket used in Friday’s flight is currently the most powerful Chinese booster in service. The 180-foot (55-meter) tall booster is capable of launching up to 12 metric tons of payload to low-Earth orbit (LEO) or 5 metric tons of cargo to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

The 3B/E version that was employed for this mission is an enhanced variant of the rocket, featuring an enlarged first stage and boosters. This version was brought into service in 2007 to increase the rocket’s GTO cargo capacity and lift heavier GEO communications satellites.

Friday’s mission was the 232nd flight of the Long March rocket series and the 36th flight overall for the 3B version. It was also the fifth launch from Xichang this year. So far this year, China has conducted 10 successful orbital launches.

The next Chinese mission is currently scheduled for sometime this month (August). A Long March 2D booster is slated to send the QUantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) technology demonstrator into orbit, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. However, the exact date of the launch has yet to be announced.

In late 2016, China plans to return to human space flight. Shenzhou-11, a planned crewed mission, is slated to lift off from Jiuquan and dock with China’s upcoming second space lab, Tiangong-2, which should be in orbit by the time the crew’s Shenzhou spacecraft is sent aloft. The exact launch dates for these missions have yet to be released.


Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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