Two Chinese Satellites Have Close Encounter in Orbit

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It would appear that China has successfully carried out a satellite rendezvous maneuver in orbit. And on August 19, the two satellites may have even touched, one probe being shunted aside by the other.

The event was first reported by the Russian media and U.S. military tracking data seems to back up these early reports. Now the question on everyone’s mind is: Why?

It may be tempting to jump to the conclusion that this technology has some kind of military application — after all, satellites have been in China’s cross-hairs before.

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In January 2007, the nation demonstrated its anti-satellite prowess by destroying a defunct weather satellite at an altitude of over 500 miles. China was heavily criticized in the aftermath and the debris remains a problem to this day.

In 2008 however, the U.S. military replied by destroying a dead spy satellite demonstrating its ability to take out spacecraft too.

Although the tit-for-tat exchange of satellite carnage looks like the rumblings of a new arms race, this most recent unannounced satellite game of tag may not be as sinister as it seems.

The two Chinese “Shi Jian” (“Practice”) satellites called SJ-06F and SJ-12 are officially designated as science spacecraft and their mission comes in advance of the launch of China’s planned space station.

The first space station module (Tiangong-1) is set for launch in 2011 and to give the docking sensors and control systems a “test run” before trying it out on the space station could be the purpose of SJ-06F and SJ-12. But why all the secrecy?

“This sort of thing may very well be consistent with wanting to test drive the hardware and software before you test it on your space laboratory,” said Dean Cheng, a Chinese policy expert with the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington DC. “You’d be doing it on a smaller, cheaper, less prestige-oriented item so that if something went wrong, it wouldn’t necessarily be politically disastrous.”

Also, China keeping the “test drive” quiet may seem fishy, but it is understandable, especially if the test docking procedure wasn’t successful. National pride most likely dictated the silence.

But there is the concern that the satellite rendezvous could indicate another, more subtle, form of anti-satellite technology. Using an intercepting satellite to “hijack” an enemy’s satellite would be quite useful after all.

However, the fact remains that there are far easier ways to “take out” a satellite using kinetic missiles or ground-based lasers to blind spy satellites.

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Whatever the intention behind this orbital satellite handshake, it is an amazing feat. Only the U.S. has succeeded in commanding two robotic probes to meet in orbit, so this experiment has shown that the Chinese spaceflight capabilities are growing stronger by the day.

Sources: New Scientist, Wired

Image: Screen shot of animation of the Shenzhou spacecraft docking with Tiangong-1 (CCTV)

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