In space warfare one man's refueling or repair capability can look an awful lot like another man's ability to destroy or cripple your satellite.
When the United States deployed the XSS-11 several years ago, critics claimed the Air Force was trying to test something that could grab another country's satellite or bump it. It was a small satellite -- about 220 pounds -- but it brought with it potentially large strategic and policy implications..
Now one Chinese satellite has approached another and, apparently, bumped its target and changed the orbit.
The Chinese satellite experiment was spotted by some of the dedicated bunch of space watchers who track what is going on in Earth orbit and its significance recognized and analyzed by Brian Weeden, technical advisor on space security to the Secure World Foundation.
On-orbit rendezvous is a complex operation, and one that has only been done a few of times before, most notably by the US satellite XSS-11, which inspected the rocket body that placed it in LEO, and one of the US MiTEx satellites, which inspected the failed DSP-23 satellite in GEO. The rendezvous of two Chinese satellites demonstrates that China is broadening its space capabilities, but also touches on the greater issue of perceptions, trust, and safety in space activities that could impact the long-term sustainability of the space regime.One of the military's top Chinese space experts, professor Joan Johnson-Freese at the Naval War College, agrees with Weeden's conclusion that this is probably not an anti-satellite test.
Given the sensitivity of this subject, it is important to separate fact from speculation. The data from the US military showing the maneuvers of the SJ-12 satellite and its close approach to the SJ-06F satellite is fact. The same data shows an anomaly in the orbit of SJ-06F, which could have been caused by either an outside force acting on SJ-06F, such as physical contact with SJ-12, or errors in creating the data. The purpose behind the rendezvous remains unknown at this time, although the technical details provide some insight. Some may try to label the SJ-12/SJ-06F rendezvous as an ASAT test, but the technical profile of the rendezvous, at first glance, does not support such a conclusion.
"So it looks like the Chinese are trying to do some maneuvering with their satellites (as the US has done with the XSS-11). They perhaps bumped -- did not cause any debris (as has also occurred with other, U.S., satellites). According to the analysis provided, it also does not look like this was an ASAT test," she said in an email, adding that she "would not be surprised to see this characterized as an ASAT test in the future if it serves someone's political purpose."
The sensitivity of China's activities and how they are interpreted is made very clear by this quote from an article in the December 2009m edition of Space and Defense, a scholarly magazine published by the Air Force Academy’s Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies. "How delicate is the China’s growing power and space emphasis may become manifest in mostly peaceful and cooperative ways or may lead to increasing competition and perhaps even conflict with the United States," wrote Pete Hays, a top space analyst who works as a consultant at the Defense Department.
Weeden's bottom-line conclusion about the Chinese action: "The rendezvous of two Chinese satellites demonstrates that China is broadening its space capabilities, but also touches on the greater issue of perceptions, trust, and safety in space activities that could impact the long-term sustainability of the space regime."
Weeden knows both the U.S. and Chinese space communities teeter on the edge of persistent mistrust and bellicosity and clearly hopes international efforts to improve space situational awareness and to build confidence among the great space powers will persist. The supremely important task of managing perceptions and performing honest analysis is likely to grow more complex as China grows in power and confidence.