China launches likely reconnaissance satellite constellation

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China has launched what is likely a new constellation of reconnaissance satellites for the Ministry of Defence.

The launch of the Long March 4C vehicle took place on 25 November from the Jiuquan launch facility in north-central China. The three payloads, Yaogan 16A, -B and -C, officially consist of one large and two small earth imaging satellites. Western experts believe that the three are actually reconnaissance satellites - the large one an electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellite, and two smaller radar and optical satellites.

The US Air Force, which tracks objects in orbit, described orbital characteristics virtually identical to those of a of three Yaogan satellites launched in 2009, believed to comprise a similar, complementary reconnaissance constellation. The orbital characteristics and three-satellite constellation are similar to a now-defunct US system called Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellite (NOSS), used to detect and examine ships at sea.

The main satellite was built by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CAST) and is believed to have been built around the CAST 2000 bus design, as are its predecessors.