China Space Program: Military Apps

Most space programmes are military to some extent. Both America and the Soviet Union used modified missiles to launch their satellites and spacemen in the early days. And even in the days of the Space Shuttle, NASA was employing that device to put spy satellites into orbit, and recover them. For China’s space effort these still are the early days, so civilian and military applications remain intertwined.  In July, for example, the CNSA (China National Space Administration) launched a trio of satellites, allegedly as part of a project to clean up space near Earth by removing orbital debris. Such debris is indeed a problem, given the number of launches that have happened since the hoisting of Sputnik in 1957. Nor did China itself help when, during the testing of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, it blew one of its own redundant satellites into about 150,000 pieces. So a charitable view might be that this mission was a piece of contrition. Cynics, however, suspect that what was actually launched was another type of antisatellite weapon—or, at most, a piece of dual-use technology which could act as a space-sweeper as well.

One of the newly launched probes was indeed equipped with a robotic arm of the sort that might pick up space litter. The other two were, the story went, to stand in for bits of debris. But once initial tests were over, the satellite with the robotic arm made a number of unusual manoeuvres and approached not one of the devices it was launched with, but rather an ageing satellite in a different orbit—just the sort of behaviour that would be useful if you wanted to eliminate an observation or communication satellite belonging to another country.

The Chinese are not the only ones working on space weaponry, of course. America is busy in the field, too. And that accounted for a slightly more desolate atmosphere at the meeting than is normal at astronautical congresses. American law prohibits NASA from collaborating with China, or even organising bilateral exchanges with it.

Excerpt, China in Space: How Long a Reach?, Economist, Sept. 28, 2013, at 75

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