Xichang Satellite Launch Centre

The Xichang Satellite Launch Centre (XSLC) is China’s spaceport for Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) and lunar exploration launch missions. First becoming operational in April 1984, the launch centre has supported the CZ-3 family and the CZ-2E launch vehicle from its two launch pads. Like other space launch sites in China, Xichang is also under the military jurisdiction, known as the PLA 27th Training and Test Base in its military designator.

The launch centre is located at 28°14’ N 102°02’ E, in a valley approximately 85 km northwest of Xichang City in Sichuan Province. It is of typical subtropical climate, with an annual average temperature of 16ºC and gentle ground wind. The launch complex is composed of two launch pads, a mobile service tower, and a technical area for fuelling and vehicle checkout. Other facilities include the headquarters, the communications centre, the launch control centre, and three tracking stations.

Xichang Airport is located in the north suburbs of Xichang, with a 3,600 m runway capable of accepting large cargo aircraft such as Boeing 747 and An-124. Dedicated railway line and highway link the launch centre with the Chengdu-Kunming railway and Sichuan-Yunnan highway. Launch vehicles are transported in segments via the dedicated railway line directly to the vehicle processing building in the technical area. The processing building has the capacity to assemble and test one launch vehicle while storing another at the same time.

The idea of a dedicated space launch site in southern China was born in the late 1960s against the background of worsening relations and a looming war with the Soviet Union. Concerned about the safety of China’s existing missile and space launch facility in Inner Mongolia (Jiuquan), which is only several hundred kilometres away from the norther borders, Chinese military planners decided to construct a new launch site for the proposed satellite and human spaceflight missions in deep mountains of southern China. After surveying 81 sites located in 25 regions across 9 provinces were examined, the search team finally selected a mountain valley called Songlin, near Xichang.

The construction of the new launch site began in the winter of 1970 under the code name “Project 7210”. The site was purposely built in a mountain valley for better survivability. Part of the facilities, including propellant storages, were built in underground and mountain caves to avoid enemy detection. Originally a single launch complex (Pad 1) was planned to support the launch of the Shuguang 1 manned capsule (Project 714). Construction of the launch site ground to a halt in the mid-1970s following the cancellation of the manned programme, and was only resumed in 1978, when the decision was made to launch the DFH-2 geostationary communications satellite (Project 331) from Xichang.

Launch Complex 3 (LC3, or Pad 3) became operational in 1983, and the first launch with a CZ-3 launch vehicle took place on 8 April 1984. A total of four DFH- 2 satellites were successfully placed into GEO between 1986 and 1990. In order to support the launch of heavier launch vehicles, Launch Complex 2 (LC2, or Pad 2) was added in 1990, with the first launch using a CZ-2E launch vehicle taking place on 16 July 1990.

The Xichang launch centre was declassified in 1984 and was used to provide commercial launch services for foreign customers using Chinese launch vehicles throughout the 1990s. However, these launches suffered several high-profile failures. The most fatal accident occurred on 15 February 1996, when a CZ-3B launch vehicle veered off course and hit a hill 1,200 m away from the launch pad shortly after lift-off, destroying its US$125 million satellite payload IntelSat 708. The impact and violent explosion of the rocket killed six people and injured another 57, and also destroyed over 80 buildings in a nearby village.

In 2004, Xichang received a modernisation overhaul which included 25 modifications to its launch, telemetry and tracking, communications, meteorology, and logistic support systems, in order to support the robotic lunar probing programme. LC3 was completely demolished and rebuilt. In January 2007, a rocket booster launched from Xichang used its kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) payload to destroy a retired Chinese meteorological satellite Fengyun 1C in orbit – China’s first anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test.

In 2010 China announced its plan to construct a new spaceport for GEO and planetary launch missions on its southern island of Hainan. After the Hainan Space Launch Centre becomes operational, launch activities from Xichang will gradually wind down, and the centre will become a back-up centre and for military launch missions only.

Facilities

The technical area is located several kilometres away from the launch complex. The area consists of launch vehicle processing buildings (BL1 and BL2), spacecraft processing buildings (BS2 and BS3), the solid rocket motor processing building (BM), X-ray building (BMX), and spacecraft fuel storages.

Stage components of the launch vehicle are transported by railway to the transit station at the south of the launch centre, where they are then transported by road to the launch vehicle processing building for examination and checkout. The satellite payload is normally airlifted to Xichang Airport, and then transported to the technical area by road. The launch vehicle and satellite first underwent the checkout procedures in the processing buildings, before being moved to the launch pad for assembling and fuelling.

The current Launch Control Centre, commissioned in 2007, is located in Xichang City about 85 km away from the launch complex. The launch centre’s telemetry, tracking and control (TT&C) system includes three tracking stations: Xichang, Yibin, and Guiyang. In a typical launch campaign, they are supplemented by the Weinan Tracking Station, Ximen Tracking Staton, and two Yuanwang space tracking ships stationed in the South Pacific.

Xichang Launch Control Centre

Launch Complex 3 consists of a fixed umbilical tower with swing arms, a steel launch table, and a round shaped ground hole leading to a single concrete flame trench-deflector. The launch vehicle is assembled vertically on the pad, using a crane at the top of the umbilical tower to hoist each stage and the payload into place. The launch vehicle is checked out while standing on the pad, fuelled, and then launched. The rebuilt Launch Complex 3 is now able to support all variants of the CZ-3A family of launch vehicles, including the heavy-lift CZ-3B/E.

Launch Complex 3

 

Launch Complex 2 has a steel-structured umbilical tower which provides gas, liquid, and electric supply to the launch vehicle during the final checkout procedure. Air-conditioned clean air of class 100,000 cleanness level is being continuously fed into the payload faring until 30 seconds prior to the launch. The tower has rotatable platforms and swing arms to allow access to the launch vehicle. An air-conditioned ‘clean room’ is located at the top of the tower for satellite checkout operations. The launch vehicle sits on a fixed launcher platform, underneath which is a round ground hole leading to a single concrete flame trench-deflector.

Launch Complex 2

Launch Complex 2 is supported by a mobile service tower moving on rail tracks. During the launch preparation stage, the tower moves next to the umbilical tower for the assembling, checkout, and fuelling of the launch vehicle. It moves away from the pad hours before the launch. The mobile service tower, 96 m in height, is equipped with cranes, elevators, power supply and distributor, and the fuelling system. The two cranes at the top of the tower have a lifting height of 85 m and a load of 20 t using the main hook, or 10 t using the secondary hook. There are two elevators for the lifting of personnel and equipment. The tower has platforms to allow the access to the launch vehicle and the spacecraft for checkouts and tests. The upper section of the tower is air-conditioned and environment-regulated with a cleanness level of class 100,000, and is used for the integration of payload with the fairing and launch vehicle. A smaller crane with 8 t lifting capability is fitted on the roof of the section to lift the spacecraft onto the launch vehicle.

A new launch pad for mobile launch vehicles was constructed in 2006. The pad has not umbilical tower or flame trench. The rocket launcher is rolled out on its transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle. The pad is believed to have been used for the 2007 ASAT weapon test.

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