Chinese satellite test
China recently conducted a space test involving two satellites that rendezvoused several hundred miles above Earth in a maneuver analysts say will likely boost Beijing’s anti-satellite weapons program.
The U.S. Strategic Command, the military nuclear warfighting command whose mission includes ensuring freedom of acton in space, tracked the two satellites but has not heard from the secretive Chinese military that runs Beijing’s space program, including its anti-satellite missile system.
“Our analysts determined there are two Chinese satellites in close proximity of each other,” a defense official told Inside the Ring. “We do not know if they have made physical contact. The Chinese have not contacted us regarding these satellites.”
There were concerns that a collision of the two orbiters would cause them to break up and create debris that could threaten other satellites and spacecraft.
China in January 2007 fired a ground-based anti-satellite missile that destroyed one of its orbiting weather satellites. The test created a debris field of thousands of pieces of metal that is expected to be a damage risk for satellites and spacecraft in that orbit for decades.
The defense official said the Pentagon wants all nations to “act responsibly in space to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions and mistrust.”
Strategic Command publishes data on satellites and debris in orbit on a website, www.space-track.org, specifically for “this effort to be a responsible actor in space,” the official said.
Military specialists say maneuvering close to satellites is a key capability for space warfare. The capability can be used for repairs, intelligence gathering, or during military operations for jamming, capturing or destroying satellites.
The Pentagon is closely watching China’s space weapons program, which is considered a strategic asymmetric warfare tool to be used against U.S. commercial and military satellites in a conflict. The military uses satellites for everything from guiding missiles to navigating at sea. Officials said that China, using less than two dozen ASAT missiles, could cripple the U.S. military electronically with satellite attacks.
Internet news reports from Russia, China and the United States first reported last week that the two Chinese satellites conducted a close inspection of each other in near-Earth orbit on Aug. 22. One satellite identified as SJ-12 carried out a series of maneuvers in its rendezvous with an older satellite called SJ-06F.
After the encounter, the orbit of second satellite changed, indicating it may have been bumped by the maneuvering one. The Strategic Command data indicated that the satellites came as close as 200 meters from each other just before a possible collision.
Asked about the rendezvous, a second defense official referred to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on China’s military that warns Beijing is boosting its space warfare capabilities.
“China is expanding its space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, and communications satellite constellations,” the report said. “In parallel, China is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by potential adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.”
James Oberg, a space affairs analyst, said the rendezvous appears linked to the military, which is in charge of the all space programs in China.