The launch took place at 07:53 CST on Friday 3 March (23:45 UTC on 2 March) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre (JSLC). No details on the launcher were disclosed but it is believed that the launch vehicle took off from one of the two solid launcher pads, rather than the Long March pad in the South Launch Site (SLS).
According to the report of the Chinese state media, the KT-2 is a small-load solid-fuelled launcher capable of placing 250 kg payload into a 700 km Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO), or 350 kg to LEO. As one of the rapid-response launchers being developed by CASIC, the KT-2 is capable of mobile-launch from a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle and requires less preparation time than the conventional liquid-fuelled launchers.
The KT-2 is the third solid-fuelled small-load launcher developed by the CASIC Fourth Academy, after the unsuccessful KT-1 and the recently introduced Kuaizhou (KZ) launchers.
The Kaituozhe series solid-propellant launch vehicles were introduced by CASIC Space Solid Fuel Launch Vehicle Co. Ltd. in 2000. Based on the JL-1/DF-21 solid-propellant medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) technology, the KT-1 was designed as a small-lift orbital launcher to send small satellite of under 100 kg into Earth orbit.
The concept of an all-solid-propellant small-lift launch vehicle was originally developed in the 1990s. Such a launcher would be able to be launched from a mobile, truck-based platform, without requiring the complex rocket fuelling and launch pad facilities. This would offer a low-cost, fast-response, and highly-flexible launch capability in both peacetime and crisis.
CASIC set up Space Solid Fuel Launch Vehicle in May 2000 as the primary contractor for its KT-1 launcher. The programme was solely funded by CASIC, with no state funding. Space Solid Fuel Launch Vehicle was responsible for the development and marketing of the launcher, and the Sixth Space Academy in Inner Mongolia was responsible for the solid motors. The development entered the engineering phase in November 2000, with the third-stage successfully tested on 25 February 2001.
The KT-1 was a four-stage design 13.6 m in length and 1.4 m in diameter. The first-stage had four nozzles, with a launch mass of 20 t. It was the first Chinese-made launch vehicle to be equipped with a Strap-down Inertial Navigation System (SINS) for guidance. The KT-1 was capable of placing a satellite of under 100 kg mass into a 600 km polar orbit for earth observation and scientific research roles. The rocket could be launched from a mobile truck-based platform, or an airborne platform. If necessary, the launch vehicle could be ready for launch in 12 hours.
The KT-1 had only made two flights since 2002, none of which was fully successful. In its first flight in September 2002, the vehicle failed to place a 35.8kg microsatellite into the 300km polar orbit due to second-stage failure. A second launch on 16 September 2003 sent the 40 kg PS-2 microsatellite into space but on the wrong orbit. The satellite barely made a single orbit before re-entry. CASIC officials insisted that the launch vehicle’s guidance system, fairing separation and payload separation all worked according to the plan, but admitted that not all objectives were achieved”.
In early 2004 Chinese media reported that the KT-1 was ready for its third flight to launch a small satellite in June. However, there had been no further report on the launch subsequently, possibly due to the launch being unsuccessful.
CASIC also developed an improved variant, originally designated KT-2 and later renamed KT-1A. This was a four-stage orbital launch vehicle capable of sending 300 kg payload into the Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) and polar orbit. With an estimated launch mass of 40 t. The KT-1A featured a new first-stage motor with larger diameter, topped by the first two stages of the basic KT-1 vehicles.
A larger-size KT-2A (later renamed KT-1B) was designed for polar orbit missions with greater payload capability (~400 kg and up to three separate payloads). The vehicle consists of two solid boosters derived from the first stage motor of the KT-1, a larger-diameter core second stage motor like that of the KT-1A, a new larger-diameter third stage motor, and an enormous new fairing. Both designs were displayed as models but did not enter production due to a lack of order.
Later CASIC also developed an air-launched KT-1 concept, which was to be carried and launched from a Xi’an H-6 medium bomber or a Russian IL-76 transport plane.
It is not clear whether the launcher used on Thursday’s mission was derived from the abandoned KT-1/2 technology, or an entirely new design.
Tiankun 1 Satellite
Tiankun 1 is a small experimental satellite developed by CASIC 2nd Academy, intended to demonstrate the communications, remote-sensing, and small satellite bus technologies for CASIC’s Hongyun Programme. The programme aims to build a global wideband communications satellite constellation consisting of 156 satellites operating from 1,000 km LEO. The constellation will provide Ka-band communications to allow mobile broadband Internet access from anywhere in the world. Following the launch of the first experimental satellite in 2017, four operational satellites are due to be launched before 2019. The first phase of the project is expected to complete by 2021.