Mysterious Actions of Chinese Satellites Have Experts Guessing

A set of three mysterious satellites has experts guessing about the Chinese space program’s intentions. No one really knows what the Chinese are up to, and everything is speculation.

That appears to be the consensus of space experts tracking a set of Chinese spacecraft. Some have speculated that the Chinese are testing possible anti-satellite technology, while others have described the satellites as prosaic probes meant to sharpen the country’s overall space skills.

Under debate are the orbital antics of several newcomers to space — the Chinese satellites Shiyan-7, Chuangxin-3 and Shijian-15 — which all launched into orbit together on July 20. Experts are also discussing the actions of China’s elder spacecraft Shijian-7, which launched more than eight years ago.

One of the trio of new Chinese satellites, Shiyan-7 (SY-7, Experiment 7), has since made a sudden maneuver. That satellite had already finished a series of orbital alterations that put it close to one of the companion satellites with which it was launched, the Chuangxin-3 (CX-3).

“Suddenly, however, it made a surprise rendezvous with a completely different satellite, Shijian 7 (SJ-7, Practice 7), launched in 2005,” noted Marcia Smith, a space policy analyst and founder and editor of

‘Arming’ the heavens?

Soon after the July launch, it was known that one of the three satellites carried “a prototype manipulator arm to capture other satellites,” a tool that might be “a predecessor of an arm destined to be aboard China’s large space station, set for launch in 2020 or soon thereafter,” wrote Bob Christy on ( also reported the news.)

Christy could not confirm at the time which of the three satellites carried that arm.

When the three satellites were hurled skyward in July, the Chinese language press specifically discussed “space debris observation,” “mechanical arm operations” and the testing of “space maintenance technologies,” said Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst and China project manager within the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.

From benign to malign

The mystery surrounding the recent launches fits the Chinese pattern, said Dean Cheng, a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

“Not sure why these are a surprise, other than that the Chinese don’t tell us what they’re going to do, so anything they do comes without a convenient press briefing,” he said.

Close proximity maneuvers, like that between the two Chinese satellites, are consistent with a range of possibilities, from the benign (docking, refueling and repairs) to the malign (anti-satellite), Cheng told

“But it is perhaps useful here to recall that the People’s Republic of China remains intent upon establishing space dominance as part of their thinking about ‘fighting and winning local wars under informationized conditions,'” Cheng said. And, even as the Chinese call for greater military-to-military contact with the United States, it’s true “that they remain opaque, and that they pretty much refuse to engage the U.S. on military space issues.”

Choice to make

An anti-satellite (ASAT) capability allows a country to render a satellite non-operational, Smith wrote.

China conducted an ASAT test in 2007 when it launched a satellite interceptor against one of its own satellites. The test was successful in that it destroyed the satellite, but the resulting cloud of more than 3,000 pieces of space debris in a heavily used part of Earth orbit resulted in international condemnation, and spurred efforts to develop an internationally accepted code of conduct to ensure space sustainability,” Smith said

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