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Hongyun Project – China’s Low-Earth Orbit Broadband Internet Project

Long March 11 rocket and Hongyun-1 satellite (source).It might be tempting to dismiss this effort as small and behind the broadband satellite projects of companies like SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat, but that would be a mistake.

Last December, State-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) launched the first experimental Hongyun (rainbow cloud) Project satellite, and they began testing it in March.

The 247 kg test satellite is in orbit at an altitude of around 1,100 km, and they plan to launch four more test satellites this year and begin operating with a 156-satellite constellation in 2022. I don’t know anything more about their plans, but with only 156 satellites I suspect they will focus on unserved regions in rural China and perhaps Latin America at first.

It might be tempting to dismiss this effort as small and behind the broadband satellite projects of companies like SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat, but that would be a mistake. China has an ambitious, global Internet infrastructure and application program called the Digital Silk Road and the “road” is terrestrial with highways, ports, pipelines, and railways, undersea with cables and in space with Hongyun Project and their Beidou satellite navigation system which will be global next year, and the Digital Belt and Road Earth observation program. Our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the current trade war were gifts to the Chinese.

Update Jun 4, 2019:

CASIC broke ground on April 24 for a satellite industry park in Wuhan, Central China’s Hubei Province, where they will produce satellites for the Hongyun project.

In keeping with China’s policy of funding competitors, another production line operated by a satellite start-up, Spacety, based in Changsha, Central China’s Hunan Province, began construction in January. Each facility is expected to produce 100 satellites per year. (China has historically funded Internet service competition).

Update Jun 18, 2019:

U.S. military tracking data shows the satellite is in a nearly circular orbit averaging 1,067 km altitude at an inclination of 99.9 degrees and CASIC confirmed that Hongyun would emphasize service in China’s remote regions.

Update Nov 26, 2019:

Speaking at a conference last week, CASIC general manager Zou Guangbao confirmed their planned schedule and said they would serve the broadband communication, navigation & remote sensing markets in China and elsewhere. They are also developing a separate constellation of 80 Internet of things satellites

Update Dec 14, 2019:

GalaxySpace is a second Chinese company working on a LEO broadband constellation. Their first satellite is under construction. The 200 kg satellite will have 10 Gbps capacity, orbit at 1,200 km with a 300,000 square km footprint and use high-frequency Q/V band radio.

Update Dec 18, 2019:

Hongyun has expanded its broadband satellite plan. They are now working toward 864 satellites orbiting at 1,175 km with an 8 Terabytes per second capacity. They hope to serve 2 million 5G users through direct connections to base stations, 200,000 broadband users and 10 million Internet of things users. The focus will be on China and Belt and Road nations.

Update Dec 21, 2019:

Liu Shiquan, Deputy General Manager of CASIC Hongyun satellite reported that Hongyun performance and function tests have been completed. He did not give details but said the tests included Web browsing, video chat, and high-resolution streaming.

Liu also gave a few schedule hints. The post quotes him as saying they would launch four more test satellites “by 2020” but I assume that meant “during 2020.” He also said that by the beginning of 2020, users across China will be able to access the demonstration system. There was no elaboration on this, but I assume he is referring to a few test users. He also said they plan to have 156 satellites in operation by the middle of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25).

I wonder if more detailed information is available on the Web in China.

Update Jan 6, 2020:

The Hongyan (Wild Goose) project plans a constellation of around 320 LEO satellites. They have launched one test satellite so far and had hoped to launch 8 more by 2020, but did not make that deadline. They expect to have 60 satellites in orbit and operting around 2023 will be able to provide global coverage with the full constellation by 2025.

As shown in this illustration, they plan to connect buildings, ships, trains, and planes and to provide mobile backhaul and, most interestingly direct service to mobile phones. He Mu, Hongyan Application Director, promised the development of a “chip [that] can be integrated into the mobile phone so that everyone holding an ordinary mobile phone will have access to seamless satellite telecommunication with global coverage.” (If this happens, it will be interesting to see how they differentiate this from terrestrial mobile service).

Hongyan is a project of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) while Hongyun is a project of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). CASIC has four other “five clouds” projects underway in addition to Hongyun:

  • Feiyun, using solar-powered drones
  • Kuaiyun, using near-space airships (dirigibles?)
  • Tengyun, a project to develop reusable space plane.
  • Xingyun, an 80-LEO narrowband IOT constellation using cubsats, the first of which has been launched.

Characteristics of Hongyun and Hongyan satellites

Update Jan 20, 2020:

GalaxySpace has launched a LEO “5G” satellite, Yinhe-1, which is expected to test Q/V and Ka-band communications at up to 10 Gbps. I’m not sure what a “5G” satellite is, but note that the above diagram shows a satellite communicating directly with a mobile phone, as opposed to a mobile tower. Check out this short video on the satellite and launch.

Update Jan 20, 2021:

See this post for some discussion of Chinese space policy.

Update Feb 25, 2021:

Space Engineering Development (SED), a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), has begun testing its satellite manufacturing infrastructure and is expected to begin production in March. The plant will manufacture the Hongyun satellites and will be capable of producing about 240 satellites annually. Hongyun plans a 156-satellites constellation, so they should be ready next year when they plan to begin operation.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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