Positioning accuracy of China's reconnaissance satellites is set to improve with more new generation satellites entering their orbits. Photo: Weibo via qianlong.com

Thanks to a recent surge in launches, the number of People’s Liberation Army’s spy satellites continues to expand rapidly. With many of them boasting high-definition imaging capabilities, the satellites are being deployed in the name of surveying or scientific research. However it is thought that many of them can be converted to military reconnaissance use “at the push of a few buttons”.

The Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review reported that the resolution of panchromatic images from these satellites had been greatly enhanced to 0.3 meters or higher, meaning that objects on the ground as small as 30 centimeters can be accurately distinguished.

The magazine cited an “authoritative PLA source” as saying that more advanced satellites, featuring ultra-high resolution at 0.1 meter, are also in the pipeline,

Chinese scientists are thought to have sourced assistance from France in developing new super lenses, as the transfer of optical technologies normally does not fall within the realm of the West’s military embargo.

Meanwhile, a new network comprised of 26 optical and radar satellites is also set to take shape in space. The latest launch took place on June 2, when a low orbit optical satellite was put into orbit from the Jiuquan Launch Center in the northwestern Gansu province. Xinhua said the satellite was meant for “agriculture, forest and grassland observation”.

A computer-altered satellite image of Taiwan and China’s mainland coastline at night. Photo: Weibo

Military commentator Andrei Chang said Chinese satellites orbiting earth in multiple trajectories can fly over places of concern to Beijing, such as Taiwan, and take pictures or even scan a vast region more than ten times per day. Such imagery can be viewed from multiple perspectives and heights, presenting a full, up-to-the-minute picture of virtually anywhere on the island. This of course means that military installations, government facilities, plants belonging to military contractors or vital infrastructural locations that are all-but invisible from the ground can be examined in detail from on high.

For instance, radar imaging satellites in the much higher Sun-synchronous orbit can take in the entire island of Taiwan at a glance, while images from optical satellites in the low earth orbit can provide more detailed information.

Such advanced technology was doubtless behind the statement made by a PLA general at a military forum held in Beijing last year when he boasted that the Chinese military had more detailed satellite imagery of Taiwan than the Taiwanese.

Industry experts meanwhile say it is safe to presume that India, Japan, South Korea and atolls occupied by other countries in the East and South China Seas are also under continuous scrutiny from Beijing’s ever-expanding satellite network.