Thursday, 10 October 2013

Is China becoming too aggressive in space?

According to recent news reports, a Chinese satellite used a mechanical arm to capture another satellite in orbit last week. The satellite was launched in a Long March-4C rocket on July 20 and was apparently observed manoeuvring before last week’s capturing test.

That a Chinese satellite can move to grab another satellite while still in orbit is a significant achievement for China, but probably not a strategic threat. There is such a dearth of information on the Chinese space programs that it is difficult to ascertain exactly how far along they really are.

The experimental space vehicle could be part of a testing system for more advanced civilian satellite systems in the future, perhaps for a new space station, or even as a lab tool. Equally it could herald an impressive new capability for China’s covert anti-satellite program.

It remains unclear whether the manoeuvrable satellite is entirely part of China’s growing anti-satellite program, or whether it is a civilian satellite which can double as a military tool. Such a robotic arm is useful for orbital maintenance and may not have been built especially to disrupt other satellites at all. But the capability now exists.

The US Defense Department has been monitoring the movement of Chinese satellites, according to a Pentagon spokesperson, three of which were involved in last week’s test.  The experimental satellites have been identified as the Chuangxin-3 (Innovation-3), Shiyan-7 (Experiment-7) and Shijian-15 (Practice-15).

As far as open source research can uncover, the action was likely limited to a single satellite, and does not necessarily point to a coordination of craft performing anti-satellite warfare. Chinese officials have also allayed fears of an impending satellite war by explain the craft are only “scientific experimentation satellites”.

China’s strategic focus on space is still years behind the United States, even while the Americans have stopped their own rocket travel and are using Russian rockets launching from Central Asia. The Chinese space program has nevertheless advanced in leaps and bounds since its official beginning in 1958.

Their first manned mission occurred in 2003 and an anti-satellite missile destroyed a depleted Chinese satellite in 2007. That particular anti-satellite missile test caused over 3000 pieces of orbital debris ranging from the microscopic to dinner-plate size. So there is little wonder fears are being voiced over another potential anti-satellite test from China.

Most of that space debris will eventually fall into the earth’s atmosphere to be destroyed, but until it does, it whips around the earth at colossal speeds endangering other satellites. The US State Department and NASA worry such tests threaten the peaceful and international use of space.

The United States fears around China’s growing capability in space are probably largely rhetorical. However, Pentagon officials will know more about China’s space capabilities than what is available in public records, and their fears could only be scraping the surface. The big worry for the US is not necessarily the movements of a few satellites, but the entry of a third major international participant in space.

The United States has had to compete with only Russian technology in space for decades. China’s growing interest in securing a long term presence essentially threatens the status quo.

China’s satellite program is run almost exclusively by government industry and has relied on copying other country’s programs and technology, rather than indigenously developing their own models. This gives the Chinese program competent technology systems, but limits their ability to experiment with truly fresh technology.

What the robotic arm test shows is that China’s space abilities are quickly positioning the country as a major player in the strategic arena. Admittedly the test has implications for military uses, but in reality it displays a fairly standard capability for any future orbital maintenance of China’s fleet of satellites or space stations.

China’s plans for more satellites are part of the country’s drive to develop a full range of intelligence, reconnaissance, and communications platforms which will assist both their geopolitical and economic development.  

If their plans are to deny access to other space-exploring countries by forming the ability to physically remove adversary’s satellites, there are easier ways to anger the international community. So just because their satellites can remove other craft, this does not mean the intention exists.

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