China last week conducted a test of a maneuvering satellite that captured another satellite in space during what Pentagon officials say was a significant step forward for Beijing’s space warfare program.
The satellite capture took place last week and involved one of three small satellites fitted with a mechanical arm that were launched July 20 as part of a covert anti-satellite weapons development program, said U.S. officials familiar with reports of the test. One official described the satellite-grabbing spacecraft as a “mobile satellite launch vehicle.” A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment on the specifics of the test. But Cynthia O. Smith, the spokeswoman, confirmed that the satellites, designated Payloads A, B, and C, have maneuvered in space since their launch.
“The United States Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Combatant Command for Space (JFCC-Space), consistent with its routine operations to maintain track of objects in space, has monitored these satellites since their launch and has noticed the relative motions of these satellites amongst each other and with respect to other space objects,” she said. The Pentagon’s website Space-Track.org does not report on missions or functions of the hundreds of space objects it tracks, and Smith referred further questions to the Chinese government.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not return emails seeking comment on the ASAT test. The satellites involved in the space warfare development program were identified by the Chinese as “scientific experimentation satellites,” according to a notice published July 24 in the online journal Space News.
They were identified as Chuangxin-3 (Innovation-3), Shiyan-7 (Experiment-7), and Shijian-15 (Practice-15). The spacecraft with the robotic mechanical arm that conducted the satellite capture experiment has not been authoritatively identified from among the three orbiters. However, space analysts suspect it is Shiyan-7.
Space News is published by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), which builds strategic missiles and space launchers, and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), China’s largest missile manufacturer.
The notice stated that the three satellites were launched atop a Long March-4C rocket on July 20 from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in north central China. “These three satellites are to be used for the observation of space debris and conducting scientific experiments in space maintenance techniques like space arm operations,” the statement said. Space Track continues to identify the satellites as by their payload designations, rather than using the Chinese names.
Space analyst Bob Christy, who writes the blog Zarya.info that first disclosed the three satellites, said no public information has indicated the three satellites involved in earlier close maneuvers engaged in a significant orbit change since activities in August.
“There have certainly been no more approaches between them, and Payload A has shown no sign of maneuvering in the whole of its time in space,” he said in an email. Since no other satellites are in the same orbit as the three satellites and another satellite known as Shijian-7, “if the capture was last week, it didn’t involve any of these working together,” he said.
READ MORE ON FREE BEACON