Not many details were unveiled on payload of recently launched by China Long March 7 rocket. During its maiden flight, rocket delivered to orbit satellites and experimental scaled model of capsule for next generation manned spacecraft. Now Chinese sources are slowly giving more information about payload.
Rocket was launched on June 25, 2016, from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center. From the beginning of this successful mission it was widely known that on atop of new launch vehicle various payload will be delivered to orbit. First and main payload was experimental model of the capsule for future Chinese manned spacecraft. It was deployed correctly and after 17 hours performed reentry to land in landing zone placed in Badain Jaran Desert at 07:41 GMT on June 26, 2016. This was undisputable success, truly next milestone in the plan of modernization Chinese space vehicles. Additional payload still was a mystery, because both CNSA and CALT were not hurrying up with announcing what exactly was covered with payload fairing of Long March 7. It was announced that 5 satellites were deployed (before launch some Chinese sources claimed that only three satellites will be delivered along with main payload) with capsule model: Aoxiang Zhixing 12U Cubesat, Tiange Feixingqi 1&2, Aolong-1 and ZGZ Shiyan Zhuagzhi. After analysis of characteristics of these spacecrafts, it seems that NASA and CNSA have similar conceptions of space exploration and development of space technologies.
All five satellites are in fact experimental or research spacecrafts. Aoxiang Zhixing 12U Cubesat is research satellite designed by Shaanxi Engineering Laboratory for Microsatellites (SELM) of Northwestern Polytechnical University for measuring gravity and monitoring polarized skylight. Two satellites from Tiange Feixingqi series are probably technology demonstrators created for testing new technologies of inter-satellite communication. ZGZ Shiyan Zhuagzhi is demonstrator and experimental satellite for testing new in-orbit refueling technology. It was attached to YZ-1A upper stage and it was planned to deorbit it with YZ-1A. This satellite is clear sign that CNSA is trying to keep pace in developing most recent technologies. NASA in-orbit refueling experimental satellite is scheduled for 2020 with its first mission (refueling of Landsat-7 satellite on LEO) and Orbital ATK MEV is contracted with first GEO refueling mission for 2018. China spotted for sure new trend and probably would like to offer commercially similar technology as soon as possible. Last satellite, Aolong-1, caused little concern in the USA. It is civilian satellite equipped in robotic arm; it will approach to designated piece of space debris, attach to it and perform controlled deorbitation. It proves that China has serious approach to problem of space debris and along with space exploration would like to take care of space environment. Tang Yagang, scientist in China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation claimed on CNSA website:
“China, as a responsible big country, has committed to the control and reduction of space debris. In order to fulfill the obligations and responsibilities, our country is [working endlessly towards] achieving a technological breakthrough in space debris removal technology,”
In fact this problem was spotted years ago by NASA; China dramatically increased number of space debris generated by its satellites and launch vehicles. In years 1996-2006 this number increased from 112 to 391. Still Russia is the leader in generating space debris, but China after number of ASAT weapon tests (single ASAT test performed in 2007 caused generating of over 3000 pieces of space debris) also became one of the world leaders in this infamous statistics. In 2015 China established under CNSA and Chinese Academy of Sciences new organization which will perform studies on the problem of space debris. New organization will monitor, track and perform research of space debris for better protection of new domestic satellites, spacecrafts and space stations. Aolong-1 seemed to be purely civilian satellite developed to meet the demands of new agency, but according some sources it also could be used as antisatellite weapon. It is able to reach enemy’s satellite and destroy it with robotic arm or perform deorbitation. Of course it is possible in theory but in practice it would be one of the most not efficient ASAT weapon. First of all satellites are monitored and tracked by organizations like USSTRATCOM and their orbital parameters are under constant control. Every orbit change which could cause collision with other satellite, or even would resulted in approach to satellite operated by another country would be spotted. It means that Aolong-1 could not be used by surprise. Next reason is fact that it would take some time to approach to target and during this time Aolong-1 could be easily destroyed with ASAT missile. Last argument which should be seriously considered is the price. Manufacturing and delivering satellite to the orbit for destroying enemy’s satellite, which could be easily destroyed with ASAT missile is just too expensive. Of course there is small chance that Aolong-1 technology could be used for military purposes, but in fact most of space technologies could be adopted for creating some kind of weapon. In this case it is more possible that China spotted the problem of space debris and seriously started space cleaning.
On picture above: ASAT missile.