A powerful blast-off in the Yellow Sea on Wednesday afternoon has shot China into the same elite league as the US and Russia – countries capable of catapulting rockets and payloads offshore into space.
A Long March 11 rocket lifted off from a mobile launchpad floating in the Yellow Sea off eastern China’s Shandong province, delivering as many as five commercial satellites and two others, allegedly containing experimental technology for weather forecasting and ship navigation systems, into orbit.
Xinhua reported that China’s first successful launch at sea was also the 306th Long March rocket launch, which ascended aboard a privately owned platform, a converted barge that was larger than a standard soccer field.
The Long March 11, which is 21 meters tall and has a diameter of 2 meters, is a solid-propellant carrier rocket. It is designed with the flexibility to launch on short notice and can launch from vehicles, and now, ships.
Experts say sea launches offer advantages such as the ability to position closer to the Equator. For instance, China can sail its launch ships all the way offshore to the center of the South China Sea, closer to the Equator, so that rockets need less fuel and thus cutting overall costs, especially when launching low-inclination satellites. Another virtue is that seaborne launches also reduce the danger of damage on the ground from falling rocket debris.
The uneventful launch was yet another demonstration of China’s prowess in aerospace and maritime technology.
Since its first manned space mission in 2003, China has continued to edge closer to the US and Russia in a three-way space race, with numerous launches and missions over the decade sending more taikonauts into space, two space stations into orbit and multiple probes and rovers to the moon. The last of these was the first-ever mission to the dark side of the moon, and the country is also working toward a mid-2020s launch to send a probe to Mars.
South Korea also borders the Yellow Sea and Japan is not far away, so the launch made headlines in both countries.
China’s neighbors now look warily at the potential military applications of such sea-launch technologies, given the fact that Wednesday’s launch was conducted by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, which is also heavily involved in the defense sector and a major contractor for the People’s Liberation Army.