China’s Long March 4 rocket has returned to service with the launch of the Ziyuan-2D remote sensing satellite. The mission is the first for the rocket since a “structural” issue between the third stage and payload of a Long March 4C caused the loss of the Yaogan Weixing-33 satellite on May 22.
The Long March 4B was launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center at 03:36 UTC this morning. The rocket carried the Ziyuan-2D remote sensing satellite and two small satellites for the Beijing Normal University. Following a successful launch, all three satellites were deployed into a low Earth orbit.
Officially, the Ziyuan-2D remote sensing satellite will be used for environmental monitoring, crop yield monitoring, and monitoring of natural disasters. However, many Western military experts have stated that they believe it to be a high-resolution military reconnaissance satellite. Chinese officials have countered these claims stating the Ziyuan-2D only has a resolution of between 60 and 100 meters, a capability that would be unsuitable for most military applications.
This morning’s launch was the first Long March 4 mission since the loss of the Yaogan Weixing-33 satellite in May. The launch initially appeared to have been completed successfully with the first and second stage operating as expected. However, following the launch reports started to surface that an anomaly in the third stage of the rocket had resulted in the satellite failing to reach orbit.
Following the Yaogan Weixing-33 failure, a full investigation into the accident was launched. It found that the material used for a structural section between the third stage and payload was the cause of the anomaly.
With the Long March 4 back in service, China will likely push to complete several missions that were earmarked for the vehicle for 2019. Currently, a total of six additional missions are expected to be launched aboard Long March 4 rockets, four aboard the 4B variant and two aboard the 4C variant. Two meteorology satellites will be launched into geosynchronous orbits aboard the Long March 4C missions while the 4B missions will carry Earth observation satellites to low Earth orbit.