China’s New Digital Imaging Satellites Boost PLA Recon

China’s first high resolution ZY-1 type digital imaging spacecraft is readied for launch December 22 at Taiyuan launch site. Photo Credit: China National Space Agency (CNSA)

Data from China’s two new “ZY-1” digital imaging spacecraft indicate the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now has access to color high resolution electro optical satellite imagery.

The first of the new civil/military dual use spacecraft designated ZY-1-02 was launched last Dec. 22, 2011, while the second satellite ZY-1-03 was launched on Jan. 9 this year. There was no ZY-1-01 spacecraft.

It is possible that Chinese secret military spacecraft have even higher resolution. But images taken by the new ZY spacecraft show that the new satellites are capable of showing aircraft details, military vehicles and the weapons systems on U. S.,  Indian, South Korean and other potential adversary warships, especially if enlarged by experienced image interpreters. Readers can do this as well by clicking on the images here (then again if a second roughly labeled image appears) or using their fingers to enlarge images on iPads and iPhones etc.

First ZY-1 spacecraft has 7.7 ft. resolution good enough to capture extensive detail at this Chinese port and on the ships using it. Note large ship undergoing work in dry-dock at center. Message in Chinese characters on building roof can be read from spacecraft’s 480 mi. altitude. Photo Credit: CRESDA

Although the Chinese stress how the ZY spacecraft are focused on crop monitoring and land use, the images released are of a large sea port with ships, a major airport with differing aircraft and an urban scene where vehicles are clearly visible. The Chinese message is unmistakable. That message is: “If you oppose China militarily from the sea, land or air, we can see what you are doing.”

The new spacecraft will also undoubtedly be useful for many commercial and government applications like monitoring urban sprawl, commercial development, mapping and monitoring coastlines, mapping water resources and numerous other land use applications.

The launch of these two advanced satellites within 2 weeks of each other is also an exercise that demonstrates how quickly China can turnaround and replenish critical military imaging satellite constellations.

Different aircraft types can be identified at Beijing International Airport in this ZY-1-02 image. Note engines and differing wing shapes. Transmission flaw created smear at bottom. Photo Credit: CRESDA

The initial ZY-1-02C spacecraft has a maximum 7.7 ft. resolution while the second ZY-1-03C satellite has somewhat better 6.9 ft. resolution. That is much less capability than the few inch resolution that U. S. National Reconnaissance Office spacecraft have.

But the Chinese spacecraft are good enough to accurately assess the number of U. S.  aircraft based places of Chinese interest like Guam and Diego Garcia, and to also count the ship and aircraft basing in Japan and the Philippines.

They can also watch any facility changes at the Reagan Anti-Ballistic Missile Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll and keep similar watch over India and North and South Korea. They will also enable China to obtain much greater coverage of Iran to inform China’s own policy decisions on Iran’s nuclear developments.

A ZY-1-02 image of the 500 year old Forbidden City in Beijing shows detail on traditional Chinese roofs. At bottom of picture note cars on Beijing’s main avenue, Dongchang’an Jie, outside of the Imperial site. Photo Credit: CRESDA

In comparison, the American GeoEye-1 launched in 2008 has a resolution of 16 inches while GeoEye-2 scheduled for launch in 2013 will have 9.8 in. resolution, for Defense Dept. contracts.

“The resolution of our current satellites has reached the level of the same kind in France, Japan and India,” said Yu Wenyong, head of the China’s Center for Resources Satellite Data and Application (CRESDA) which released the images.

”The engines of large aircraft at Beijing’s Capital International Airport can be clearly seen from the images delivered from remote sensing satellite ZY-1-02C, as well as vehicles and trees on the road,” Yu said in connection with the image release.

Both spacecraft carry two high-resolution color cameras and one multi-spectral camera.

China intends to launch three additional electro optical spacecraft into polar orbit with up to 1 meter (3.3 ft.) resolution.

This five spacecraft constellation will give China a frequent digital reconnaissance presence over areas of interest as it moves to strengthen control over the Asia-Pacific region.

The two ZY spacecraft were both launched from Taiyuan Space Center on three stage 150 ft. tall Long March 4B rockets. They were placed into 480 mi. high orbits. The ZY-1-03 launch Jan. 9 from the snow covered launch site is shown below.

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