Chinese partnership to create Tianxian SAR satellite constellation

Space

HELSINKI — A Chinese state-owned enterprise and a private firm are partnering to establish a 96-satellite SAR constellation, with the first launch set for February 2022.

The 38th institute of the giant state-owned enterprise China Electronics Technology Group (CETC) will work with private satellite manufacturer Spacety to construct a X and C-band synthetic aperture radar constellation named Tianxian. The constellation will consist of 96 small satellites launched into various planes.

The announcement was made at the recent Zhuhai Airshow in south China, which concluded Oct. 3. A contract was signed with the China Great Wall Industry Corp. (CGWIC) for launch of the first batch of satellites on the second Long March 8 in February 2022. A further launch is scheduled for Q3 2020 according to Spacety.

The Tianxian satellites will have four imaging modes of imaging functions, Science and Technology Daily reports. Onboard processing capabilities will allow fast image interpretation and information transmission. Spacety has already developed TY-MiniSAR-C and X first generation satellite platforms.

Spacety and the 38th institute combined to develop the satellite platform and SAR payload for the C-band satellite Hisea-1. The miniaturized, 185-kilogram satellite launched in December 2020 from Wenchang on the first Long March 8 rocket. 

Hisea-1 is China’s first commercial SAR satellite and is capable of imaging with a spatial resolution of 1 meter and a swath width of 100 kilometers. It is oriented to national security, emergency, industrial application and scientific research needs, including ocean and coastal observation. 

The nature of the partners and capabilities of Tianxian mean it is a possible example of China’s military-civil fusion national strategy, leveraging and optimizing civil and military resources and potentially serving both military and economic needs.

Hisea-1 carries an iodine electric propulsion system developed by French Startup ThrustMe for orbit maintenance, collision avoidance and de-orbiting. Spacety also recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Italian firm T4i on cooperation in electric propulsion and flight opportunities. 

These partnerships could help Spacety meet obligations laid out by a Chinese government body overseeing the development of commercial space in the country.

A “notice on promoting the orderly development of small satellites” issued May19 by China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) touches on areas including frequency use, production, on-orbit safety, launch applications, collision avoidance capabilities. 

Hisea-1 is expected to use its propulsion system to deorbit at the end of its anticipated three-year lifetime.

The Tianxian plans follow a spate of commercial SAR constellation developments worldwide. Finland’s Iceye already operates X-band SAR satellites while the first operational satellite of San Francisco-based Capella Space, Sequoia, also operates in X-band. U.S. startup PredaSAR and Japan’s iQPS are also active in this field. 

Tianxian is not the only Chinese interest in commercial SAR satellites. In February, Beijing Smart Satellite Space Technology Co., Ltd. began procurement processes for its own SAR plans. Smart Satellite plans establish a constellation comprising 12 SAR X-band satellites in 2022 and in July signed an agreement with CETC’s 12th Institute, a domestic leader in microwave electron vacuum devices. 

Among other companies with an interest in SAR, Piesat Information Technology Co. Ltd., which develops software for remote sensing image and data processing, in August signed a strategic agreement with GalaxySpace, a Beijing-based satellite manufacturer, for development of a four-satellite SAR constellation.

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