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The commercial launch vehicle Ceres-1, carrying four satellites, blasts off from waters near Haiyang in Shandong province on Tuesday. Photo: EPA-EFE/Xinhua

Chinese firm launches satellite from mobile sea platform, testing potential tech for national space programme

  • Galactic Energy’s Ceres-1 rocket lifted off near Shandong province, sending four satellites into orbit as part of Internet of Things constellation
  • Tianqi 21-24 satellites equipped with chemical propulsion systems allowing for orbital manoeuvres over a distance of more than 300km
Beijing-based Galactic Energy is the first commercial space company in China to launch a satellite from the sea, using technologies never before attempted that could boost the nation’s space launch capabilities.
The company’s Ceres-1 solid-fuel rocket lifted off from a mobile platform off the coast of eastern Shandong province at 5.34pm on Tuesday, sending four satellites into an orbit about 800km (500 miles) above Earth to form part of an Internet of Things constellation.

While previous sea launches involved a launch tube or rack mounted on the floating platform to hold the rocket, Ceres-1 took off from a transport erector launcher which was driven onto and fixed to the barge, according to the company’s official WeChat account.


Look out Starlink: China is supersizing its rocket industry

Look out Starlink: China is supersizing its rocket industry

The company says it is the world’s first hot launch on a land transport launch vehicle at sea.

The launch vehicle was fixed on the ship with a magnesium strip locking mechanism added to the tail end of the rocket. The structure was simple, easy to operate and required low ground-support conditions.

Before ignition, the magnesium strip locking mechanism could ensure the vertical safety of the rocket under shaking conditions. After ignition, it could be removed and unlocked for a reliable take-off.

It is the world’s first solid rocket locking and release mechanism that does not use explosives, according to the company.

Sam Bresnick, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Centre for Security and Emerging Technology, said there were major advantages to sea launches.

“You can reposition your boat or barge to launch in many locations, which provides flexibility and can help launch to different orbital inclinations. Launching at sea can also be safer than launching on land as you can position the launch pad far from populated areas and away from busy airspace and shipping lanes,” Bresnick said.

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Between 1999 and 2014, a Russian-American venture called Sea Launch LLC conducted 36 launches from the Pacific Ocean, said space programme historian and Harvard University astronomer Jonathan McDowell.

“Each time they launched from the equator after a long sea voyage from California, which had problems – if your satellite develops a fault and needs fixing before launch, it’s a long trip back. That’s part of the reason why sea launch hasn’t been popular in the US since then,” McDowell said.

Taking place about 3km from the coastline of Haiyang, the Chinese mission avoided this logistical drawback, could potentially support a high launch cadence and was much more economical than building a launch site on land in a populated area, he said.

The 20-metre long, 1.4-metre wide Ceres-1 can deliver 400kg (880lbs) into low Earth orbit. Tuesday’s launch carried Tianqi satellites 21-24 for Guodian Gaoke – a private company that has been assembling its Tianqi low-orbit narrow-band Internet of Things network over the past five years.

Once the 38-satellite constellation is completed next year, it will provide a wide range of data services to civilian and military customers alike, such as marine communications, ecological monitoring, “smart city” building, and battlefield situation awareness, Galactic Energy said on its WeChat account.


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Alleged satellite debris falls to earth in a village of northern China

Unlike previous Tianqi satellites, Tianqi 21-24 were equipped with chemical propulsion systems allowing for orbital manoeuvres over a distance of more than 300km, the company said. The propulsion would help the satellites not only maintain a stable and continuous coverage, but also lower themselves at the end of the mission and not create space junk, McDowell said.

“This mission verified the technology and platform adaptability of the Ceres-1 rocket for hot sea launches … the number of Ceres-1 sea launches will gradually increase to keep up with the frequency of its land launches, and further enhance the high-density launch capabilities of Galactic Energy.”

Tuesday’s sea launch was the ninth launch success from Galactic Energy’s nine attempts which were all land-based.

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China has been using its Long March 11 solid-fuel rockets, developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, for sea launches since 2019, including the most recent in October, also from the Haiyang site.

In the United States, several space companies were exploring sea launches and recovery, Bresnick said. For instance, Blue Origin was working on sea launches and the Spaceport Company in New Mexico was developing sea-based launch pads.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is using drone ships to land some of its rockets. Landing at sea could be useful if rockets did not have enough fuel to make it all the way back to the original launch site, he said.