China has made no secret of their ambitions to have a world-class human spaceflight program, going beyond mere publicity stunts, and last week they completed one of the major elements for that: the fourth Tianlian tracking and data relay satellite. These four geostationary commsats will cooperate to relay information from Chinese spacecraft to ground stations, allowing the same uninterrupted 24/7 high bandwidth communications that NASA has long enjoyed through its Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation. (Russia, by contrast, has relied on ground stations. This is less of a handicap than one might think, given Russia’s enormous land area — although it can’t give them 24 hour coverage, their ground station coverage obviously dwarfs anyone else’s.)
Tianlian I-04 launched aboard a Long March 3C on November 22 from Xichang Launch Center.