China launched seven civilian satellites on Saturday using mobile launch vehicles normally used to fire military rockets, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The first launch in the morning sent one remote sensing satellite into orbit, while six satellites – to be used for purposes such as communications and navigation – were sent into orbit in the evening.
The second launch from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre created a mysterious zigzag shaped “dragon cloud” that, thanks to clear skies over northern China, was visible from Beijing – 500km to the east, which stirred speculation on social media.
The satellites were launched using KZ-1As rockets, a lightweight solid fuel projectile developed by the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation (CASIC), using technology initially for use by the military.
“The KZ uses last-generation military technologies and transferred them to civilian use,” said Beijing-based military commentator Zhou Chenming.
A report by Reference News described the rockets as having a “high delivery accuracy, short preparation time and low cost”.
These characteristics mean the rockets could allow for the speedy launch of replacement satellites if the country’s communication or navigation network in space was damaged or came under attack.
The KZ-1A was first launched in 2017 and Saturday’s dual launches were its fourth and fifth missions this year, all of which were completed successfully.
Numerous photos of this mysterious “dragon cloud” it created stirred speculation on Chinese social network.
The rocket exhaust trace seen in the northern Chinese sky appeared to be similar to one in April last year, which was believed to be caused by China test firing a hypersonic missile, probably the DF-17.
But CASIC said it had been caused by the rocket launch, adding: “Today’s KZ is perfect match for Beijing’s clouds”, adding two rocket emojis.
Coincidently on the same afternoon, North Korea announced it had conducted a “very important test” at its Sohae satellite launch site.
It claimed the results would have an “important effect” on changing the “strategic status” of North Korea, without giving any details of the test.