Just months ago China conducted not one, but two hypersonic missiles tests, both of which circled the earth before hitting their targets.
The shock waves from these tests are still reverberating in the Pentagon and the White House, as fears of a new arms race looms.
US Senator Angus King described the new weapon as a “strategic game-changer with the dangerous potential to fundamentally undermine strategic stability as we know it.”
Chinese officials said it was “a peaceful space experiment.”
Adding fuel to that fire, China expanded that tech gap just a bit further this week as it launched a new satellite that analysts say can be used as a weapon capable of grabbing and crushing American satellites, The Washington Times reported.
The Shijian-21 satellite was sent aloft atop a rocket booster from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, ostensibly for cleaning “space debris,” according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., Beijing’s state-run space company.
The company stated that the satellite is “tasked with demonstrating technologies to alleviate and neutralize space debris.”
The launch occurred at 9:27 a.m. Beijing time Sunday, marking the 39th orbital launch attempt from China this year, tying an annual record in Chinese launch activity set in 2018 and 2020.
The Long March 3B rocket flew southwest from the Xichang launch base, dropping its four liquid-fueled boosters and first stage over Chinese territory about two-and-a-half minutes into the mission.
A second stage engine and a reignitable cryogenic third stage finished the rocket’s work before deploying the Shijian 21 satellite into orbit.
US military tracking data indicated the launcher placed the Shijian 21 spacecraft into an elliptical geostationary transfer orbit ranging as high as 22,253 miles (35,813 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of about 28.5 degrees to the equator.
The orbit suggests Shijian 21 will use its own propulsion to circularize its orbit more than 22,000 miles over the equator.
At that altitude, in a geostationary orbit, the spacecraft will move around Earth once every 24 hours, traveling at the same rate of the planet’s rotation.
Chang Zheng 3B/E, also known as the 3B/G2, is an upgraded version of the previously flown 3B variant.
It features an upgrade to all of the four liquid rocket boosters and the center stage and increases the payload capacity of 11,500 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 5,500 kg to GTO.
Meanwhile, the commander of the US Space Command, Air Force Gen. James Dickinson told Congress in April that spacecraft like the Shijian-21 is part of an effort by China to seek “space superiority through space and space-attack systems.”
“One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm,” Gen. Dickinson said. “Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”
The Shijian-17 satellite is used for communications and monitoring space debris. It is said to be capable of maneuvering close to orbiting satellites and grabbing or crushing the spacecraft, he said.
Gen. Dickinson said the co-orbital robotic spacecraft is part of a growing arsenal of space weaponry fielded by the Chinese military.
The Shijian series of satellites were first observed in 2013 when three were launched and US intelligence detected unusual movements by the crafts.
The Shiyan-7, or (Experiment-7), Chuangxin-3 (Innovation-3) and Shijian-15 (Practice-15) satellites each weighed around 22 pounds or less.
Of the three spacecraft, the Shijian-15 was the most unusual, according to US officials.
Like something out of a James Bond film’s evil plot, the satellite carried a robotic arm with a pincher on the end.
Other Chinese space weapons include several types of ground-launched anti-satellite missiles capable of hitting satellites in low-, medium- and high-altitude orbits, and electronic jammers and lasers.
“We see their capabilities from direct-ascent ASAT, antisatellite capabilities, to on-orbit activity that they’ve done with that capability,” Gen. Dickson said.
“All the while, China continues to maintain their public stance against the weaponization of space,” he claimed.
Michael J. Listner, a space security analyst, said identifying China’s capabilities is difficult because of the dual-use nature of space technology.
“Technology that has peaceful uses can be used for nonpeaceful uses,” he said.
“A mission that could have a peaceful use in orbital debris mitigation could be employed as a co-orbital ASAT,” said Listner, with the firm Space Law and Policy Solutions.
China “says ‘trust us,’ but the classified nature of the mission and the PRC’s development of counter-space capabilities says otherwise.”
The Secure World Foundation has tracked Chinese and other space actors’ rendezvous and proximity operations.
It notes that Shijian-17 has demonstrated maneuverability around the geostationary belt, circumnavigated Zhongxing-5A (ChinaSat-5A) and made later approaches to Zhongxing-6B and Shijian-20, which launched in December 2019.
Retired Indian Col. Vinayak Bhat, a former imagery intelligence analyst, echoed that analysis.
Bhat said the launch of Shijian-21 is suspicious because China has previously shown no interest in reducing space debris and has been launching larger rockets and increasing debris, he said.
“This robotic arm technology is inherently dual use and would most certainly be used as a space weapon to capture and disable/destroy enemy satellites,” Col. Bhat said.
“China deploying such dual-use satellites strongly suggests [the Chinese Communist Party’s] intention to militarize space.”
More than 100 million pieces of space debris are estimated to be in orbit ranging in size from several inches to floating garbage weighing several tons.
Around 50% of the space debris was the result of disintegrated spacecraft, said Liu Jing, deputy director of China’s Space Debris Monitoring and Application Center.
Liu made no mention in the China Daily report of China’s 2007 ASAT missile test that left tens of thousands of dangerous floating debris in space.
Since the 2007 test and the world outcry against the test, China has not conducted similar ASAT missile tests, but instead has hidden its space warfare attack capabilities by disguising them as anti-missile tests or civilian research.
Sources: The Washington Times, Al Jazeera, SpaceFlightNow.com, NASA, SpaceNews.com, MIT