THIRD SATELLITE: JI SHU SHIYAN WEIXING MYSTERY

There was a gap of over four years between the launch of Shi Jian 1 (1971) and the next Chinese satellite (1975). In the event, the next series of satellites, which took place before the period of openness and modernizations, raised more questions than it answered. The series comprised three successful launches and three failures during the period 1973-76. The series has been mentioned but never described in the Chinese literature. In China, it was codenamed project 701. Construction of the Ji Shu Shiyan Weixing (JSSW) satellite had begun in early 1970 (hence “70” and “1”), although we know virtually nothing of its development or history. The program is important in illustrating early interest in the military application of satellites, the role of different design bureaus, news management, and the challenge of interpretation so, for these reasons, it is covered in detail.

Ji Shu Shiyan Weixing stands literally for “technical experimental satellite”. The term Chang Kong, or “Long Sky”, has also been applied to the series and in some places has been named Chang Kong 1, 2, and 3. JSSW may have been an attempt to develop a satellite for electronic intelligence gathering, then a dominant theme in the military satellite programs of the Soviet Union and the United States. No signals were ever heard abroad, so it is presumed that they transmitted only over China. The series took place at the same time as the development of the Chinese recoverable satellite program (Chapter 4) and, in the absence of information from China, the two series were confused several times (indeed, their orbital paths were not that different). When the first launching took place, the official, indeed bellicose, announcement appeared to confirm the military thrust of the program, stating that the satellite was part of “preparations for war”. The subsequent official history refers to the importance of the satellite entering a very precise orbit and small errors in perigee were simply not acceptable. Intriguingly, this was a familiar characteristic of some Soviet electronic ocean intelligence satellites so it is possible that the Chinese series had a similar purpose. Photographs of a cone-shaped satellite in the Shanghai plant were subsequently found that may be the missing JSSW [5].

Project 701 used a new launcher, the Feng Bao (“storm”), made in Shanghai and based loosely on the Dong Feng 5 missile. Responsibility for its development was assigned to the Shanghai #2 Bureau of Machinery and Electrical Equipment even though it had never built a rocket before in its life. There appear to be several reasons for the decision to build the new rocket in Shanghai. One was probably political – it was Mao Zedong’s power base and he probably liked to allocate pet projects there; a second was the desire to build the industrial base outside the national capital – Shanghai was the most advanced industrial city in the country; and a third may have been to follow the Soviet style of socialist competition in which design bureaus were encouraged to compete so as to drive up standards.

Despite its inexperience, the Shanghai team was resourceful in mobilizing the industrial and technological resources of the city and the region, using a research institute to build the rocket’s computer, the shipyards to weld its aluminum copper alloy tanks. In only 10 months, they built the Feng Bao, 192 tonnes in weight, 33 m tall, able to put 1,500 kg into orbit, the only Chinese rocket not in the Long March series.

The Feng Bao design was more ambitious, challenging, and demanding than the Long March and some aspects suffered from its rushed production. The first two launch attempts failed (18th September 1973 and 14th July 1974), but patience was rewarded on the third attempt. On 26th July 1975, the JSSW 1 entered orbit at 183— 460 km, 69°, 91 min. The launch announcement gave the barest details about the satellite (only orbital parameters), proffering instead a weighty political commentary on the current state of development of the proletarian revolutionary line. The 100-kg JSSW 1 decayed after 50 days in orbit, crashing into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean on 14th September 1975.

JSSW 2 entered orbit on 16th December 1975. This time, the launch announce­ment did not even give the orbital parameters, instead providing more appropriate information on the struggle against Lin Biao and Confucius. JSSW 2 flew 70 km lower than JSSW 1 (186-387 km, 69°, 90.2 min), burning up in the atmosphere after only 42 days. JSSW 3 came nine months later, on 30th August 1976, flying much further out than its predecessors (198-2,145 km, 69.2°). Like its two predecessors, it weighed 1,110 kg. The launch announcement gave even fewer details about the satellite (only the date), paying more attention to its political significance (this satellite marked the struggle against Deng Xiaoping and the right deviationists). JSSW 3 decayed in 817 days. None of the three satelhtes maneuvered in orbit.

The final JSSW launch took place on 10th November 1976, but it never reached orbit. The JSSW program then closed. This may have been because it did not achieve the intended results. Officially, they were technology test satellites, but it is not clear what technology was tested or how it was subsequently applied. Enquiries about them meet with cagey responses even to the present day. There have been two occasional glimpses of what the missions might have been. American aerospace experts visiting Shanghai Huayin Machinery Plant in 1979 were shown a domed cylinder 2.5 m tall, 1.7 m in diameter, weighing 1.2 tonnes, with 1 x 2-cm solar cells. They were told that China had launched three of them, each with 10-day missions – which fits the JSSW profile – but no more. A tantalizing slide along these lines was presented by a Chinese official giving a lecture in Stockholm in 1992. Many years later, the series remains obscure, the Western consensus being that their probable purpose was electronic intelligence. UnUke the case of the Soviet Union, where hitherto obscure missions have come out into the open through the histories of the design bureaus, this has not been the case in China. JSSW must have been important, for six were launched, even though only three reached orbit. The JSSWs set a standard for mystery, for later subsequent military missions such as the Yaogans and Shi Jian 6 and 11 series (Chapters 6 and 7) were to prove no less tantalizing.

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