Xichang Satellite Launch Centre (XSLC) is China’s space centre for high Earth orbit and deep space launch missions. The centre became operational in 1982 and the first launch was conducted from here in April 1984. Once China’s busiest spaceport, it supported all of China’s geostationary satellite launches, as well as the Chang’e unmanned lunar exploration missions. The launch centre is due to become a backup launch site once the new launch centre on the southern Hainan island becomes fully operational.
The launch centre is located at 28°14’ N 102°02’ E, in a valley approximately 85 km northwest of the Xichang City in Sichuan Province. It is of typical subtropical climate, with an annual average temperature of 16ºC and gentle ground wind. Launch activities are conducted from the two launch complexes (LC2 and LC3). Other facilities include a technical area, the headquarters, the communications centre, the mission command and control centre (MCCC), and three tracking stations. The launch centre can support over 10 launches each year.
Satellites are delivered by air to the nearby Xichang Airport, which has a 3,600 m runway capable of accepting and can accept large cargo aircraft such as Boeing 747 and An-124. Launch vehicles are transported to the launch centre by railway through a dedicated rail link connecting to the Chengdu-Kunming mainline railway. The technical area located several kilometres away from the launch complex includes launch vehicle processing buildings (BL1 and BL2), spacecraft processing buildings (BS2 and BS3), the solid rocket motor processing building (BM), X-ray building (BMX), and spacecraft fuel storages. The launch vehicle assembly buildings have the capacity to assemble and test one launcher while storing another at the same time.
The Chinese military chose Xichang as the location to build a new missile and space launch site in 1970, due to concerns over the approximation of the existing Jiuquan launch centre to the northern border. As well as supporting long-range ballistic missile and satellite launches, the new launch site would also be used for China’s manned spaceflight mission, which was being quietly developed by the Chinese space industry and military. Following the cancellation of the manned programme, construction of the new launch site stopped with no launch pad completed.
Construction of the launch centre was resumed in 1978, when the site was selected as the launch site for the country’s first geostationary communication satellite Dong Fang Hong 2 (DFH-2). Launch Complex 3 (LC3) was completed in 1983. Between 1984 and 1990, a total of five DFH-2 satellites were launched from the launch complex aboard the Chang Zheng-3 (CZ-3) launch vehicle.
In 1990, Launch Complex 2 (LC2) was completed to support the commercial launch services for foreign telecommunications satellites using the heavier CZ-2E rocket. The launch complex consisted of a launch pad and mobile service tower for hoisting rocket stages into place for assembly. The first launch from the launch complex took place on 16 July 1990.
XSLC began to support commercial satellite launches in April 1990. However, a series of high-profile launch failures throughout the 1990s forced China out of the commercial space launch market almost completely. The most fatal accident occurred on 15 February 1996, when a CZ-3B rocket failed to launch and crashed into ground near the launch centre, destroying the US$125 million IntelSat 708 satellite onboard, killing 6 people and injuring another 57.
In 2004, the launch centre received a modernisation upgrade in its launch complex, telemetry and tracking, communications, meteorology, and logistic support systems in order to support the robotic lunar exploration programme. LC3 was completely scraped and rebuilt. The first lunar probe mission Chang’e 1 was launched from the launch complex on 24 October 2007.
On 11 January 2007, China conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test from an unknown location inside XSLC or nearby. A four-stage launch vehicle reportedly designated SC-19 carried a kinetic kill vehicle (KKV), which intercepted and destroyed a retired meteorological satellite Feng Yun 1C at an altitude of 865 km above Earth. The KKV booster was not launched from one of the existing two launch complexes at the centre, but a mobile TEL vehicle stationed at a pre-surveyed launch spot.
XSLC was designed and built during the peak years of the Cold War, with its security and survivability being primary factors in the selection of its location. As a result, the launch centre was deliberately situated inland, far from the coast. Along its southwards downrange are many populated rural areas. Used rocket stages dumped back to Earth often fell into villages, causing damages to properties and in some cases casualties. During each launch mission, tens of thousands of people living near the drop zones need to evacuated from their homes in advance.
In late 2007, the PRC government announced its plan to build a new space centre on the southern Hainan Island. The new launch centre, scheduled to become operational in 2016, will eventually replace XSLC as the launch site for geostationary orbit and lunar missions. Chinese state-run media reported that once the new launch centre is fully operational, XSLC will become a backup launch site.