China launches second Gaofen-12 Earth observation satellite

By Andrew Jones #

HELSINKI — China successfully launched the Gaofen-12 (02) satellite Tuesday, marking latest in a line of high resolution satellites to boost the country’s Earth observation capabilities.

A Long March 4C rocket lifted off from Jiuquan, northwest China at 6:45 p.m. Eastern Tuesday. 

The first indication of the upcoming launch came from airspace closure notices, with the type of rocket and mission payload unknown.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) announced launch success within an hour later (Chinese). The release confirmed the Long March 4C rocket and the payload as Gaofen-12 (02).

The Gaofen-12 (02) satellite was sent into 594 x 600 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, according to U.S. satellite tracking. The first Gaofen-12 was launched into a similar initial orbit in December 2019.

The Gaofen-12 (02) (‘high resolution 12-02’) satellite is nominally part of the civilian China High-resolution Earth Observation System (CHEOS). Chinese media state reports that the satellite will be used in land surveys, urban planning, road network design and crop yield estimation, as well as disaster relief.

The Gaofen-12 (02) satellite was developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), subordinate to CASC, China’s main space contractor. The mission patch includes an eagle with the Atlantic ocean highlighted in a background map.

CHEOS was initiated in 2010 to provide all-weather, all-day coverage with optical and synthetic aperture radar satellites.

Resolution capabilities and other information has been published for lower numbered Gaofen series satellites. However information for Gaofen satellites numbered 8 and above has not been openly released, suggesting the satellites are for national defense purposes.

Renders of the satellite in orbit on mission control screens shown on state television suggest that satellites such as Gaofen-11 are large (1.5-meter-diameter-plus) aperture optical remote sensing satellites. 

An article published by the Chinese Society for Geodesy, Photogrammetry and Cartography (Chinese) states that Gaofen-11 has the capability to return optical imagery at a resolution of around 10 centimeters. The interview-based article claims that this is comparable to the believed capabilities of the U.S. Keyhole classified reconnaissance satellite system.

The Gaofen satellite launch Tuesday was China’s eighth of 2021. CASC states that it plans to launch more than 40 times this year. Other state-owned and commercial companies are also planning launches.