The first Yaogan was announced on 26th April 2006 without forewarning as a satellite for “surveying, crop monitoring, disaster forecasting and other forms of remote sensing”, a formula used on all subsequent launches. The launcher used was the CZ-4B from Taiyuan, its weight 2.7 tonnes, and the builder was SAST. The original orbit was polar at 97.8°, 603-626 km, then raised to almost circular at 623626 km.
The second launched on 25th May 2007 but this time on the CZ-2D from Jiuquan and with China’s first pico-satellite, MEMS, 1 kg, built by Zheijiang University for micro-electronics research. This was a cube covered in solar panels, with infrared sensor, s-band receiver, and camera. In a debris-reduction measure, the second stage was quickly de-orbited. Yaogan 2 raised its orbit a few days after launch but made no further maneuvers – a pattern that became typical. The two Yaogans appeared to fly in tandem, 120° apart.
Using two different launchers and two different launch sites for the same spacecraft struck Western observers as strange. The most likely explanation was that the Yaogans were a military system in which two satellites operated in tandem, one being optical and the other radar (Japan had a similar system called IGS, Intelligence Gathering Satellite) . The radar satellite would be larger and heavier, at about 2.7 tonnes, requiring the CZ-4 out of Taiyuan, while the fighter optical satellite would use the CZ-2 out of Jiuquan. The optical satellite would transmit photographs digitally, replacing the recoverable film method used on the FSW series, while radar gave China the ability to image the Earth both at night and through cloud. In fact, China had outlined the idea of radar and optical satellites operating in tandem in 2004, with a start date of 2005, albeit for civil purposes. The radar system was believed to have a resolution of 1.5 m.
The third launch was the first on the new CZ-4C from Taiyuan, presumably to replace Yaogan 1. To confirm this impression, the Russian space journal Novosti Kosmonautiki published a photograph of Yaogan 3, clearly supporting a large radar array. A system of radar-optical pairs, one flying in close succession to the other, appeared to be in evidence. For example, Yaogan 4 flew on a CZ-2D from Jiuquan on 1st December 2008 into an orbit of 634—652 km, 97.9°, and was presumably an optical mission. Yaogan 5 followed on a CZ-4B from Taiyuan only two weeks later on 15th December 2008, launched in conditions of extreme cold, at -29°C, in a wintertime take-off. This marked a departure, for it used a lower altitude (488494 km), not that different from Zi Yuan, presumably to get better resolution on targets. Yaogan 6 was also from Taiyuan, but moved from an initial orbit of 486521 km, 97.6° on 22nd April 2009 to 511-523 km on the 29th. Coming so quickly after the missions at the end of the previous year, it is possible that an earlier one failed (presumably the optical mission), but it was unusual for a CZ-2 to fly from Taiyuan (it is possible that its normal pad in Jiuquan was not available). The lower orbit of Yaogan 5 may not even have been intended.
What appeared to be the next set of pairs was Yaogan 7 and 8, flown in quick succession in December 2009. First was Yaogan 7 into 623-659 km, 97.8° orbit from a CZ-2D from Jiuquan, back into the traditional orbit and presumably an optical mission. Then fresh interpretive problems started. Its presumed radar pair, Yaogan 8 took a quite different profile, a much higher orbit of 1,192-1,204 km, 100.5°, on a CZ-4C from Taiyuan. Not only that, but it deployed a small 50-kg amateur radio satellite, the Xi Wang (“hope”). One explanation was that it was trying to fly above the risky debris at lower altitudes, caused by the Chinese destruction of the Feng Yun. The much higher altitude was a puzzle, for it was too high for either optical or radar observation – but typical of altitudes followed by American electronic intelligence satellites (elints) to detect electromagnetic or radar signatures. In light of what was to follow, this is the most likely explanation.
Yaogan 9 followed only three months later on 5th March 2010, also into a high orbit of 1,083-1,100 km, a little below Yaogan 8, but a quite different inclination of 63.4°, one typical of the earlier FSW satellites. Sharp-eyed ground observers spotted, in formation with it, two small unnamed maneuverable satellites – a pattern developed by American ocean electronic surveillance satellites to triangulate signals from ships at sea, so it may have been similar. Yaogan 9 was the first to use a powerful CZ-4 from Jiuquan – another first and more reason to suspect a different purpose. So Yaogan 8 and 9 may have been an electronic intelligence pair.
There was a return to the traditional radar-optical pair with Yaogan 10 and 11 in August-September 2010. Yaogan 10, the radar carrier, launched on a CZ-4C from Taiyuan on 9th August 2010 into a 607-621 km orbit, 98.7°, maneuvering on 23rd August to an 628-629 km operational orbit. Yaogan 11, its optical pair, followed on 22nd September on CZ-2D from Jiuquan. This time, China announced that two 3.5-kg subsatellites had been deployed. Called Pixing, they were built by Zhejiang University and had a single camera to test Earth imaging. Yaogan 11 orbited 90° apart from Yaogan 7.
Winter 2011 saw another set of double launchings: Yaogan 12 on 9th November and Yaogan 13 on 29th November. Yaogan 12 rode a CZ-4B out of Taiyuan, presumably the radar pair, but this was complicated because Yaogan 13 took the CZ-2C out of Taiyuan as well. A television picture of Yaogan 13 on China TV showed a box-like satellite with solar panels, but no sign of radar. The CZ-2C would, presumably, not have the lifting power for a radar satellite, so the other possibility is that this was an optical mission for some reason shifted from Jiuquan to Taiyuan. Yaogan 12 brought up a subsatellite, Tianxun 1.
Yaogan 14 flew in spring 2012, carrying a technology satellite called Tiantuo (“space pioneer”). Using a CZ-4B, it was imagined to be the first radar satellite of a radar-optical pair – but Yaogan 15, only two weeks later, was similar to the earlier Yaogan 8 at 1,200-km altitude and most likely used for electronic intelligence.
Here, the Jian Bing (JB) designator system used by the Chinese to categorize the FSW missions (see Chapter 4) resurfaced. The Chinese attached the title Jian Bing 5 to the Yaogan series, with many subsets (e. g. JB-7, radar; JB-8, optical; even JB-10 and many variations on this have also been published, most persuasively by Novosti Kosmonautiki). In the end, the best approach is probably to apply the same types of analyses as followed by Western students of the old Soviet military space program, which is to base interpretation on launching sites, launchers, payload weights, and orbital paths. This suggests that we are looking at three main sets of missions: radar missions, generally using the more powerful CZ-
4 from Taiyuan; optical missions, smaller satellites using the CZ-2 normally from Jiuquan; and a smaller group of electronic intelligence missions.
Between them, the Yaogans gave China a comprehensive military surveillance system combining optical, radar, and electronic intelligence. It also marked the system as more versatile than that of Russia, which by this stage was flying only one photo reconnaissance spacecraft a year: the Kobalt, using the old “wet film” technology. The other countries with operational radar capacity are Japan, the United States, Germany, Italy, and Israel, but not Russia (although it used to have radar ocean reconnaissance satellites, RORSAT, in the 1970s and 1980s).
What is not clear, though, is whether each optical – radar pair replaced or supplemented the previous pair. If the former were the case, this would indicate limited lifetimes or poor reliability. If, on the other hand, the Chinese have been constructing a constellation of many operating pairs, then they have a powerful observation system offering frequent revisits of sites of interest from multiple observation points.
A further problem, though, is to identify who is under Yaogan surveillance. American analysts emphasize China’s interest in monitoring Taiwan and the strait between it and the mainland, whereas analyst Pat Norris points to its regional neighbors and China’s economic interests further afield, such as Africa and South America . China’s point of view may not be that different from that of the old Soviet Union: surrounded by American military and surveillance bases, such as the Yang Ming Shan Intelligence Centre in Taiwan, Misawa and Kadena in Japan, and Osan in Korea, China may find the need to watch the people watching them overwhelming. The series is summarized in Table 6.9.
The CZ-2C used for the lighter Yaogan optical satellites.
Table 6.9. Yaogan series.