China working to save classifed lunar mission from launch failure

Orbital data now suggests that Chinese engineers are attempting to save a classifed lunar mission from the failure of its launch rocket to put the two satellites in their proper high orbit.

The small DRO-A and B spacecraft launched from Xichang spaceport on a Long March 2C rocket March 13. Hours later, the first acknowledgement of the mission came from Chinese state media Xinhua, which announced that the spacecraft had not been inserted accurately into their designated orbit by the rocket’s Yuanzheng-1S upper stage. “The upper stage encountered an abnormality during flight, causing the satellites to fail to accurately enter the preset orbit,” Xinhua stated. “Relevant disposal work is currently underway,” it added, citing Xichang launch center.

Data from the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron (SDS) initially showed objects associated with the launch in low Earth orbit (LEO). However, subsequent Two Line Element (TLE) data sets, a mathematical representation of a satellite’s mean orbit, from 18 SDS show an object from the launch (international designator 2024-048A) in a 525 x 132,577-kilometer, highly-elliptical, high Earth orbit. This has since been raised, with the spacecraft tracked in a 971 x 225,193-km orbit on March 26.

This indicates that at least one satellite, and perhaps both—if still attached to one another—separated from the upper stage, and that the object’s orbit has been raised.

It is very possible that further engine burns could put these satellites into lunar orbit, which would then save the mission and turn the March 13 launch failure into a success.

Why China is keeping this particular lunar mission so secret is another question, that still remains unanswered.