Sunday, January 23, 2011
China performs a secret satellite rendezvous
Earlier this month, two Chinese satellites met up in orbit. Depending on who you believe, it’s either a sign of China’s increasingly-sophisticated space program — or a sign of its increasingly-sophisticated space warfare program.
A well-regarded Russian space watcher was the first to note that the two satellites, newly-launched SJ-12 and two-year-old SJ-06F, had performed maneuvers indicating a cutting edge procedure called non-cooperative robotic rendezvous. A loose network of amateur space spectators and astronomers soon congregated online, and confirmed that the sats had, indeed, converged.
This kind of rendezvous can have extremely useful, and benign, applications: removing space debris, refueling satellites or repairing craft in orbit. But the military apps are massive, and include up-close inspection of foreign satellites, espionage — and the infliction of some serious damage to adversarial space infrastructure. In other words, orbital warfare that, given just how reliant we are on satellite technology, would have widespread consequences on the ground.
“These kinds of rendezvous have been done plenty of times with ground control, but robotically controlled satellites, rendezvousing at higher altitudes, is really quite new,” says Brian Weeden, who offers an in-depth rundown of the incident at The Space Review. “The perception of how this technology is being developed, and what it is being used for, is extremely important.”
The United States is the only other country known to have performed a similar feat. In 2005, NASA researchers launched DART (Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology) in an effort to rendezvous with a Navy satellite. Navigational errors led to the two satellites bumping, but the initiative did offer proof-of-concept that American scientists were making major headway towards satellites that can autonomously meet up in space. Since then, the Darpa-funded Orbital Express program has demonstrated the capacity for satellites to rendezvous for refueling and module swapping.
So, in a sense, it was really only a matter of time before China followed suit. In recent years, they’ve fast-tracked a handful of space exploration and development projects, culminating in a satellite-killing weapons program and 90-pound mini-sat that some speculated was designed with nefarious intent.
“The Chinese would be absolutely incompetent to not be trying to reduce U.S advantage in space,” James Oberg, a former NASA space engineer specializing in orbital rendezvous, tells Danger Room. “No potential adversary in their right mind would give us permanent advantage in space operations.”
Weeden notes that neither the United States or Chinese governments have been especially forthcoming about their progress on satellite rendezvous capacities, not to mention respective satellite arsenals and specific locations. The dilemma is even more salient because, as this incident illustrates, knowledgeable amateurs with the right equipment can do their own detective work — and then meet online to share the results.
“There’s a continued assumption among governments that if they don’t publish satellite details and locations, nobody is going to figure it out,” Weeden says. “That’s wrong.”
In this instance, China’s government has yet to acknowledge the incident, and their apparent choice of location for the actual rendezvous adds to the troubling puzzle. According to Oberg, the satellite meet-up occurred in an orbit almost exclusively devoted to earth observation — spy and weather satellites, for example — where “a potential adversary would be most interested in rendezvousing.”
“On the other hand, it’s also where a satellite might need refueling,” he adds. “It’s like you could be changing a screwdriver for a hammer, or you could be turning a peaceful ‘bot into a killer one.”
But China’s been eager to boast about their prior space exploration projects, and have already publicized plans for a major satellite rendezvous trial next year, so silence in this instance seems telling.
“There’s still a vague possibility that this was a matter of computational bias and coincidence,” Oberg says. “But the silence here is suggestive of a military program.”
For now, web-based space watchers will keep working. They’re hoping to figure out whether or not the Chinese satellites touched, which would indicate either an error like that of the DART attempt or some kind of military trial run. Regardless, the rendezvous is a stark reminder that the safety of American deep-space systems is by no means guaranteed.
“For all we know, these could just be mind games. They don’t have to attack U.S space capacities — they just have to make us think they could,” Oberg says. “We’re not playing chess in space, we’re playing Go. This makes chess look like a kindergartner’s pastime.”