Hiding in plain sight: Is China’s spaceplane a co-orbital ASAT in disguise?
by Carlos Alatorre
|Given China’s motivation to compete with the US in space capability, it is likely that China’s recent launch of its spaceplanes was a direct response to the X-37B flights—a way to maintain competition with a space power like the US.|
Although the Chinese news service Xinhua released a statement after the landing, no details were given concerning the operations in orbit, the objects released, or the spaceplane’s mission. Given the secretive nature of China’s spaceplane program, Shenlong could be the quiet establishment of China’s first co-orbital antisatellite (ASAT) platform. When considering the possibility of whether the recent spaceplane was an ASAT in disguise, we need to answer two questions: Does China have the technological capability to establish a co-orbital ASAT platform? And is there evidence to suggest China has the intention to do so?
Before we understand the value and threat of a spaceplane, we need to understand the definition of a co-orbital ASAT. A co-orbital ASAT refers to a type of kinetic physical counter-space weapon. Kinetic physical counter-space weapons require a projectile or another orbiting object to disrupt the targeted satellite. Co-orbital ASATs require the ability to adjust their orbits to move close to their targeted satellites. Within a close distance, a co-orbital ASAT could disrupt, damage, or destroy the satellite through various means.
Most observed ASAT tests have been direct-ascent ballistic missiles that target orbiting satellites. When these tests are conducted on orbital satellites, they usually result in debris clouds that create a risk to other satellites, as seen in 2007 when China launched a ballistic missile targeting a non-operational Chinese weather satellite, the Fengyun-1C. As for co-orbital ASAT tests, in December 2021, China’s Shijian-21 (SJ-21) satellite managed to dock with Compass G2, a malfunctioning Beidou satellite, and used a robotic arm to drag Compass into a graveyard orbit above geosynchronous orbit (GEO). The SJ-21 released Compass and returned to its original orbit. This is considered China’s first complete co-orbital ASAT test intended to dispose of a defunct satellite. Knowing the description of ASATs, how is the spaceplane a co-orbital ASAT?
Spaceplanes are uncrewed vehicles and spiritual successors to the retired US space shuttles. An advantage of spaceplanes is that they are capable of both space and atmospheric flight and can launch vertically using a rocket or horizontally from a carrier airplane. Interestingly, China’s experimental spaceplanes, known as the Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi (CSSHQ), look very similar to the US X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).
The US X-37B is one of two Boeing-designed spaceplanes the Space Force uses as a testing platform for “researchers to see how payloads work in the space environment.” After 908 days in orbit, the OTV-6 flight of the X-37B landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on November 12, 2022, making it the longest continuous spaceplane flight to date. Given China’s motivation to compete with the US in space capability, it is likely that China’s recent launch of its spaceplanes was a direct response to the OTV flights—a way to maintain competition with a space power like the US. But was competing with the US the sole purpose of China’s spaceplane?
According to tracking data from the US Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron (18 SDS), after two months in low Earth orbit (LEO), China’s spaceplane raised its orbit and released an object that conducted co-orbital maneuvers. It is unclear exactly when the object was released, but 18 SDS noticed the matching orbits of both Shenlong and the new object on October 31, 2022. When a satellite or object in orbit maneuvers around or moves in tandem with another object, this is referred to as a rendezvous and proximity operation (RPO). A co-orbital ASAT requires the ability to adjust its orbit, which means it requires the ability to conduct RPOs.
|The RPOs and secondary object released from the spaceplane do not automatically equate to a co-orbital ASAT platform. However, it does prove that China has the technological capability and understanding to establish co-orbital ASAT platforms.|
A private firm called LeoLabs, which provides space situational awareness data using a network of object trackers, confirmed evidence that Shenlong and the mystery object, labeled Object J, conducted a series of RPOs and at least two capture/docking operations, occurring between November to December 2022 and again in January 2023. LeoLabs’ analysis suggests Object J had “propulsive capability” and utilized formation flying with Shenlong. The purpose of the RPOs was not clarified by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), however, CASC released a statement claiming the spaceplane project “will provide a more convenient and inexpensive way to access space for the peaceful use of space in the future.”
The RPOs and secondary object released from the spaceplane do not automatically equate to a co-orbital ASAT platform. Even the US X-37B launched several subsatellites on its previous missions, and a lack of public tracking cannot verify if it utilized similar RPOs. However, it does prove that China has the technological capability and understanding to establish co-orbital ASAT platforms. It should be noted that when the X-37B was launched, the Chinese expressed a lot of concern, in multilateral discussions on space security, that the X-37B could be utilized as an orbital weapon. If we look at China’s space program from a Chinese national security perspective, it is understandable to think that the Chinese would match every US operation in space with a perceived “defensive” goal. Pursuing a co-orbital ASAT test or establishing the infrastructure necessary to conduct co-orbital ASAT operations in the future is a good investment if your main adversary is a technological powerhouse in the space industry.
According to the space program white paper released in January 2022, the Chinese government intends to “defend national security, [and] lead self-reliance and self-improvement efforts in science and technology.” Three key takeaways are prevalent in this document:
The objectives stated in the white paper do not seem suspicious given China’s current stance as a technological innovator with one of the world’s biggest economies. However, the white paper also refers to spacefaring capabilities as a symbol of great power status. China plans to be a complete space power by 2040. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) views space as a military domain and considers China to be in a space race with the US. Because space is a military domain, China is developing counter-space capabilities to “deny and degrade a potential adversary [the]use of space.”
The Strategic Space Force (PLASSF) is responsible for conducting space launches and maintaining situational awareness in space. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) are responsible for planning exploratory missions and defense operations. All three have an interest in enhancing China’s military presence in space. Out of the more than 5,000 active satellites currently in orbit, 1,397 of those are Chinese intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; communications; navigation; and science and technology satellites. The PLA has stated space is a critical component for “informatized warfare”, which refers to the use of information-based systems to manage and speed up battlespace decision-making during a conflict. According to the PLA, capturing or destroying adversary satellites would degrade a military’s capabilities with precision-guided munitions.
PLA military doctrine remains opaque to the current applications of every satellite launched, but analysis of documentation suggests China has the political will to conduct a co-orbital ASAT test as a demonstration of space domain control. The PLA’s statements provide evidence for China’s intent to conduct any ASAT or counter-space test necessary to maintain an edge over the US and China has the track record in space tests to prove it.
|The spaceplane program is likely China’s attempt to establish and disguise new co-orbital ASAT infrastructure for a future test.|
Going back to 2013, there were at least 17 Chinese satellite RPOs observed. However, the observed RPOs are not single events and satellites can traverse a similar trajectory with another satellite or orbiting debris for several years, conducting various maneuvers in and out of LEO and GEO. More than 20 satellites were involved in China’s observed RPOs over ten years, with two being US satellites. Before Shenlong, the most recent recorded RPO was conducted by Shijian-23 in January 2023. To add to the suspicious intent, a recent paper by Chinese researchers suggested using RPO maneuvers to plant small explosive charges in the nozzle of another satellite. Co-orbital maneuvers will only increase, as spacefaring nations take an interest in using satellites for space debris removal, which will make distinguishing between a helpful satellite maneuver and a predatory satellite maneuver very difficult.
China’s objective of gaining an edge over the US is clearly stated in military and strategic documents. The PLA has openly stated its intentions to make China a major space power, capable of controlling the space domain and denying access to perceived adversaries. The State Administration and the CNSA have a proven track record of conducting ASAT tests to demonstrate China’s technological capability, regardless of the consequences. China’s Shenlong spaceplane, a vehicle that was built to match the US X-37B, orbited Earth for 276 days before ending its secretive mission. After an object was released to conduct a series of RPOs with Shenlong, the spaceplane program is likely China’s attempt to establish and disguise new co-orbital ASAT infrastructure for a future test.
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