GUARDING THE SEA: The police of Wenchang, Hainan Province, patrol the sea area that is the major materials transport water route for the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in February 2014 (XINHUA)
Five years after construction began, China's fourth and most advanced space center, the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, has been completed and is ready to start operations, the People's Daily newspaper reported on October 17.
Situated in Wenchang on the northeast coast of China's southern and tropical Hainan Island, the center is China's first coastal satellite launch base. Thanks to its favorable location, about 19 degrees north of the equator, the center will be mainly used to handle next-generation space vehicles and rockets, including geo-synchronous, polar-orbiting and deep-space exploration satellites and large space stations, according to Tao Zhongshan, chief engineer of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, who also revealed that the site is expected to be able to handle 10 to 12 launches a year.
"With advanced facilities, the operation of the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center will greatly improve the comprehensive strength of China's aerospace industry," Tao said.
The coastal space center's plans have a long history. According to the People's Daily report, to take the advantage given to launching satellites from near the equator, Chinese space scientists first raised the possibility of building a satellite launch site in Hainan as early as the mid-1970s. The plan was later widely discussed in the late 1980s. A suborbital rocket launch site was built on the island in the 1980s, with five successful rocket launches since 1988. Preliminary research on the feasibility of a satellite launch site on the island was initiated in 1994 and its findings were submitted to the Central Government in 1996.
A number of locations on the island, including Wenchang, Qionghai and Sanya, were considered, and finally Wenchang, a small town located in the northeast corner of the island, was regarded the most suitable location for the launch site. The feasibility study and initial design of the launch site was completed in 2005. The Central Government finally gave the project go-ahead in August 2007, and construction began in 2009.
"Once put into use, the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China's first environmentally friendly launch site, will catapult the country's aerospace industry into a new stage, with the four launch centers in China burdening different functions," Tao said.
To date, the most widely used space facility is the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, which is the country's only manned spacecraft launch center. The other two centers are the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in north China's Shanxi Province, capable of launching satellites into both medium and low orbits; and the Sichuan-based Xichang Satellite Launch Center, mainly to launch powerful-thrust rockets and geostationary satellites. China has conducted more than 100 space launches, sending over 100 satellites into space.
Space experts say the location of the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center offers a number of unique advantages over China's other three launch centers.
Long Lehao, a carrier rocket expert with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said that rockets to be launched from Wenchang would require less fuel to enter orbit.
"The proximity of Hainan Island to the equator gives an orbital speed bonus gained from Earth's rotational speed for the launch vehicle. This effectively reduces the amount of propellants required for the satellite's maneuver from the transit orbit to the geo-synchronous orbit, thus increasing their service life by up to three years," Long said.
The favorable location also allows a substantial increase in payload on the rockets to allow them to carry heavier spacecraft, Long added, explaining that the rockets can use Earth's rotation to assist their ascent.