Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre


The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre (JSLC), China’s oldest rocket launch facility, is located in northwest China, about 150 km south of the Sino-Mongolia border. The centre began its life in the late 1950s as the Northwest Missile Range, or Base 20, to support China’s ballistic missile testing. In April 1970, a modified intermediate range ballistic missile launched from the centre lofted China’s first artificial Earth satellite Dong Fang Hong 1 into orbit. Since then Jiuquan has been supporting China’s space launches, primarily Earth-observation and military reconnaissance satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). In 1996, a new launch complex was built to support China’s human spaceflight missions.

During the Cold War era, Jiuquan was commonly referred to by Western intelligence as the “Shuang Cheng Tzu Missile and Space Centre”. With the Chinese space programme opening its door to foreign visitors in the early 1980s, the centre became known as the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, named after a small city 200 km away in the neighbouring Gansu Province. This has caused some confusion since the launch centre is not actually situated within the jurisdiction of Jiuquan City. It is possible that this misnaming was a deliberate attempt to disguise its true location. Today, the centre remains a military installation known as the PLA 20th Test and Training Base.

The entire rocket range consisted of the launch head in Inner Mongolia and several missile impact zones located in Gansu and Xinjiang, covering a total area of 2,800 square kilometres. The launch head, located in Ejin-Banner County, part of Alashan League of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, includes the main living area (Site 10), launch complexes, spacecraft preparation areas, and instrumentation facilities spread across a 50 km stretch of land along the Ruoshui River on the western edge of the Badain Jaran Desert. The region has a typical inland climate, mainly dry and sunny but cold in winter, with annual average temperature of 8.7°C. There are around 260 – 300 days each year suitable for space launch activities.

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Launch Complex 3

Launch Complex 3 (三号发射阵地) was the first permanent launch facility at Jiuquan. The launch complex consisted of two concrete-paved launch pads, with an in-ground scale to measure the amount of propellant added into the missile. There was no umbilical tower on the launch pads. Missiles were transported to their launch position on truck-towed trailers, which also served as the launcher. The launch complex became operational in 1960 to support the testing of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and was deactivated in the late 1960s.

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Launch Complex 2 (North Launch Site)

The North Launch Site, also known as Launch Complex 2 (二号发射阵地), was built in the 1960s to support the testing of intermediate- to intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and satellite launches. The launch complex consisted of two launch pads (“5020” and “138”), a mobile service tower, and an underground firing room. Vehicle processing and checkout were conducted in the north technical area (Site 7) 22 kilometres to the south of the launch complex. The launch site was deactivated in 1996 and has since then become a tourist attraction.

Pad 5020 (LC2A) was commissioned in December 1966 to support the DF-4 IRBM and CZ-1 launch vehicle. The pad has a fixed umbilical tower with six pairs of swing arms, which served as operating platforms for the ground crew to access the vehicle, and also supplied power, gases, and propellants for the launch vehicle and its payload. The swing arms retracted seconds before launch to prevent them from hitting the vehicle. The launch vehicle was mounted on a steel launch table, beneath which is a round-shape ground hole leading to the concrete flame trench-deflector. During lift-off, the hot exhaust from the launch vehicle went into the water-filled flame trench-deflector and was directed away from the vehicle into open air. The first launch from the pad was conducted on 26 December 1966 and the last launch on 21 May 1980.

Pad 138 (LC2B) was added to Launch Complex 2 in 1970 to support the heavier DF-5 ICBM and CZ-2C and 2D launch vehicles. The umbilical tower was 45 m in height, and 7.8 m in width on each side. The tower was equipped with an elevator with a load capacity of 1 tonne. The tower had 5 floors of rotating platforms and 2 floors of roll-over platforms. It also featured a semi-automatic rocket examination system and a fully-automated propellant fuelling system. The first launch from the pad was conducted on 10 September 1971 and the last launch on 20 October 1996.

The mobile service tower provides an operating platform for launch vehicle assembly and satellite-vehicle integration. The tower body is an 11-floor steel structure 55.23 metres in height, 30.52 metres in length and 20.9 metres in width. The tower is equipped with an overhead crane with a lifting capacity of 15 tonnes on the primary hook and 5 tonnes on the secondary hook. There are two elevators with a lifting capacity of 500 kg at two sides of the tower. There are six floors of operating platform on the tower body. The satellite processing ‘clean room’ is located at the height of 29 metres to 42 metres inside the tower body.

The underground launch control centre is responsible for monitoring and controlling the assembling of the launch vehicle and spacecraft remotely, co-ordinating the communications between the launch complex and the technical area, weather forecasting, and medical assistance. It consisted of a firing room, three spacecraft test rooms, and two launch vehicle test rooms, supported by power supply, air-conditioning system, and communication system.

The North Technical Centre (Site 7), located 22 kilometres south of the launch site, was the rocket and spacecraft processing and rollout area. Launch vehicles and spacecraft were transported from their manufacturing factories to the technical centre via railway. Once the initial processing was completed, the stages of the launch vehicle were transported on truck-towed trailers to the launch pad, where they were hoisted into position on the launch pad, checked, fuelled and launched.

The core structure of the technical centre was the launch vehicle and spacecraft processing complex (BLS). The building consisted of a 90 m x 8 m processing hall for rocket and satellite preparation, and a 24 m x 8 m processing hall for satellite fuelling. There was also a clean room for satellite testing. The launch vehicle stages and satellite were transported to the building via a dedicated railway line. A second building in the centre was the Solid Rocket Motor Checkout and Processing Building (BM), where the solid rocket motor on the satellite was prepared.

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Launch Complex 43 (South Launch Site)

The South Launch Site (SLS), or Launch Complex 43, is only active launch complex in Jiuquan. It consists of two launch pads (“921” and “603”) and a technical centre for vehicle processing and checkout.

Pad 921 (SLS-1), also known as the “Shenzhou Pad”, (Longitude: 100°17.4’E; Latitude: 40°57.4’N; Elevation above sea-level: 1,073 m) is the primary launch pad in SLS. The launch pad is dedicated for the launch of the Shenzhou crew vehicle and space laboratory modules, using the CZ-2F launch vehicle. Facilities of the launch pad include an umbilical tower, a mobile launcher platform, a pair of flame ducts, underground equipment room, propellant and oxidiser storages, rocket fuelling system, power supply, gas supply, and communication system.

The umbilical tower is an 11-floor, 75-metre-high steel structure, designed to provide propellant loading and drainage, gas, power and communication links to the launch vehicle and its onboard spacecraft on the launch pad. It also provides facilities for pre-launch checkouts and crew entrance and emergency exit. The tower is equipped with a loading crane, a cargo elevator, and an explosion-proof elevator for the mission crew. In time of emergency, a canvas slide escaping system is available for astronauts to exit the launch pad. Power supply and other support equipment are located inside an underground room underneath the umbilical tower.

The umbilical tower comprises a fixed structure and a pair of six-floor rotating platforms. Once the launch vehicle stack arrives at the launch pad, the rotating platforms are swung to ‘embrace’ the launch vehicle to allow the fuelling and final checkout procedures to be conducted. The tower also contains an environmentally controlled and protected area for astronauts to enter the spacecraft. Rotating platforms are swung open one hour prior to launch. Four swing arms provide connections for electricity, gases and fluids to the launch vehicle, and are retracted few minutes before launch.

During the launch, flames and high-temperature exhaust from the rocket engines of the launch vehicle are directed into the concrete flames trench via a large round hole beneath the mobile launcher platform. The flames and gases are then deflected away from the launch vehicle via two rectangle-shape flame ducts located on either side of the launch pad.

The mobile launcher platform carries the launch vehicle and spacecraft ‘stack’ from the vehicle assembly building situated in the technical area to the umbilical tower. The platform is 24.4 m in length, 21.7 m in width, and 8.34 m in height, and weights 750 t. It moves on a 20 m-wide rail track at a maximum speed of 25 m/min, with an acceleration rate less than 0.2 m/sec. It takes the platform 60 minutes to complete the 1,500 m journey between the assembly building and the launch pad.

Pad 603 (SLS-2), also known as “Jianbing Pad”, was commissioned in 2003 to support satellite launches to Low Earth orbit using the CZ-2C, CZ-2D and CZ-4B launch vehicles. Facilities at the pad include a reinforced concrete umbilical tower and a single flame duct. The pad has adopted a traditional launch method, where the launch vehicle is assembled vertically on the pad, using a crane to hoist each stage into place. The launch vehicle is checked out while standing on the pad, fuelled, and then launched.

The support facilities in SLS, collectively known as the South Technical Centre, include Launch Vehicle Horizontal Processing Building (BL1), Launch Vehicle Vertical Assembly Building (BLS), Spacecraft Non-Hazardous Operation Building (BS2), Spacecraft Hazardous Operation Building (BS3), Solid Rocket Motor Checkout and Processing Building (BM), Pyrotechnic Storage and Processing Building (BP1, BP2), and Launch Control Console (LCC). The facility was designed to receive the launch vehicle and payload for assembly and testing, before they are moved to the launch pad.

For a Shenzhou mission, the launch campaign typically begins approximately two months prior to launch. The CZ-2F launch vehicle is transported in separate segments from 211 Plant in Beijing to the South Technical Centre via railway. Upon its arrival the vehicle is kept in the Launch Vehicle Horizontal Processing Building for initial testing and preparation. The core vehicle and strap-on boosters of the launch vehicle are then assembled inside BLS (the Vertical Assembly Building).

The Shenzhou spacecraft is transported from Beijing to the Dingxin Air Base by cargo plane, and then transported by road to the launch site 76 km away. The spacecraft is assembled and tested in the Spacecraft Non-Hazardous Operation Building (BS2), and then moved to the Spacecraft Hazardous Operation Building (BS3) for fuelling. The next step is to integrate the spacecraft with the payload fairing and to install the launch escape tower. The completed spacecraft is then transported to BLS, where it is integrated with the launch vehicle.

The iconic vehicle assembly building, officially known as the Launch Vehicle Vertical Assembly Building (or BLS in its code name) serves as a platform for launch vehicle assembly and payload integration. The building consists of two 26.8 m x 28 m x 81.6 m vertical-processing halls, each equipped with 13-floor moveable platform and a 50 t-load crane. The two processing halls in the building allow simultaneous processing of two launch vehicles. At the time of construction, it was said to be the world’s tallest single-floor concrete building, with the world’s tallest (86.1 m above the floor) and heaviest (13,000 t) concrete roof.

The Launch Control Console (LCC) located beside BLS monitors and coordinates the launch campaign. The console is divided into four functional rooms: Launch Vehicle Control Room, Spacecraft Control Room, Examination and Launch Command Room, and Communication Centre.

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Site 10 (Dongfeng Space City)

The Dongfeng Space City (Site 10), located 6.5 km west of the South Launch Site, is the main administrative headquarters and Launch Control Centre. It also accommodates the astronaut apartment, offices, barracks, and residential areas for the centre’s staff and their families. The site is effectively a small city, with its own power station, water processing plant, railway lines, schools, bank branches, post office, shops, hotels and leisure centre. A reservoir (Site 12) is located 8 km southwest of the city.

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Dashuli Tracking Station

The Dashuli tracking station is located 36 km southwest of the South Launch Site. The facility was originally built in 1968 to support missile testing, and has since then become the nerve centre of Jiuquan’s telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) network consisting of several optical and radar tracking post dotted around the launch centre. These facilities are responsible for tracking the launch vehicle from take-off until around 500 seconds into the flight using the optical tracking telescope and tracking radar, and receiving measurements of the vehicle’s key variables transmitted through the onboard telemetry antennas.

The tracking station consists of radar, optical, communication, computer, meteorology, and technical and logistic support sub-systems. The control hall of the station is equipped with over 30 control consoles, displaying in real-time 120 sets of data indicating the trajectory of the launch vehicle, and the live status of the rocket and its cargo. The data are transmitted in real-time to the MCCC in the headquarters to support its decision-making.

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