In May 2013 the Chinese government conducted what it called a science space mission from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China. Half a world away, Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force officer, wasn’t buying it. The liftoff took place at night and employed a powerful rocket as well as a truck-based launch vehicle—all quite unusual for a science project, he says.
In a subsequent report for the Secure World Foundation, the space policy think tank where he works, Weeden concluded that the Chinese launch was more likely a test of a mobile rocket booster for an antisatellite (ASAT) weapon that could reach targets in geostationary orbit about 22,236 miles above the equator. That’s the stomping grounds of expensive U.S. spacecraft that monitor battlefield movements, detect heat from the early stages of missile launches, and help orchestrate drone fleets. “This is the stuff the U.S. really cares about,” Weeden says.
The Pentagon never commented in detail on last year’s launch—and the Chinese have stuck to their story. U.S. and Japanese analysts say China has the most aggressive satellite attack program in the world. It has staged at least six ASAT missile tests over the past nine years, including the destruction of a defunct Chinese weather satellite in 2007. “It’s part of a Chinese bid for hegemony, which is not just about controlling the oceans but airspace and, as an extension of that, outer space,” says Minoru Terada, deputy secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Continue reading