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China launches new Beidou satellites, rocket booster lands near house

HELSINKI — China added a new pair of satellites to its Beidou positioning and navigation system Monday evening, but spent the launch stages landing in populated areas.

A Long March 3B equipped with a Yuanzheng-1 upper stage lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center at 10:26 p.m. (Eastern Time) on December 25 (03:26 UTC, December 26), placing with successful two Beidou satellites in medium Earth orbit (MEO). .

The YZ-1 upper stage inserted the satellites into orbits of 21,532 kilometers by 22,193 kilometers inclined at 55 degrees, according to U.S. Space Force space domain awareness. The satellites were developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) under the umbrella of CASC, the country’s leading space contractor.

These are the 57th and 58th Beidou satellites to be launched. The pair will serve as a backup and reduce operational risks of the Beidou-3 system, according to a CASC statement.

Meanwhile, two side boosters of the Long March 3B rocket used for the launch appear to have fallen to the ground near populated areas in the Guangxi region, downstream of Xichang in Sichuan province, according to bystander footage apparently broadcast on Chinese social networks.

One video shows a booster falling into a wooded area and exploding, while another shows a falling booster and later, wreckage next to a house.

The presence of reddish-brown gas or smoke indicative of nitrogen tetroxide is visible in both cases, while yellowish gas, likely the result of asymmetric mixing of dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) fuel with air, may be seen next to the building.

The first stage and four side thrusters of the Long March 3B use the hypergolic propellant combination of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide. The oxidizer nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH fuel pose serious health risks.

The areas, declared close to Baise and Debao in Guangxi, appear to correspond to the drop zones indicated by the airspace closure notices.

This is one of several incidents of boosters falling near populated areas associated with Beidou satellite launches. Another launch in 2019 saw a falling booster impact a rural building.

The first three Chinese launch sites were established during the Cold War. Inland sites were therefore selected to provide a measure of protection against tensions with the United States and the Soviet Union.

This means that the launches result in the rocket boosters – which separate from the main stage once they have completed their task – falling to the ground rather than into the oceans, as is the case with US and US launches. Europeans.

It is understood that authorities are issuing warnings and evacuation advisories for areas considered to be exposed to launch debris, reducing the risk of injuries.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s main space contractor and maker of Long March rockets, has taken steps to limit drop zones by testing grid fins, parafoils and parachutes. It is unclear whether any of these measures were deployed for this mission.

Chinese commercial launch startups are currently working on reusable rockets with a series of jump tests.

The country opened a fourth site on the coast of Hainan Island in southern China in 2016, but it is typically used for a handful of major missions each year. Commercial launch pads are expected to become operational near Wenchang from 2024.

China has also begun using mobile maritime platforms, but primarily for lightweight rocket launches. The Long March 3B, launched inland from Xichang, remains China’s workhorse for MEO and GEO missions.

Beidou is China’s global navigation satellite system (GNSS), capable of competing with the American GPS, European Galileo and Russian GLONASS systems. China completed its construction in mid-2020.

It consists of a total of 36 active satellites, mostly in MEO, but with satellites in geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) and inclined geosynchronous orbit (IGSO). This configuration ensures continuous and stable signal coverage.

This is the 65th launch carried out by China in 2023, marking a new national record for orbital launches in a calendar year. The previous one was 64 launches, set in 2022. This record eclipsed the previous record of 55, set in 2021.

The Beidou launch follows the launch of four Tianmu-1 weather satellites via a Kauzhou-1A solid rocket from Jiuquan on Dec. 24 (east), and the launch of three Shiyan-24C experimental satellites via a Long March 11 solid rocket from a mobile maritime platform off the coast. of Guangdong province on Christmas Day.

CASC had targeted the launch more than 60 times this year. Although it suffered no launch failures, it fell far short of the mark, with commercial space players accounting for 16 of the 65 launches. Further launches are expected from China in the final days of 2023.

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