Secret Chinese ‘space plane’ sparks fears of an intergalactic war

We don’t know what it looks like. We don’t know what he’s doing. But the mysterious behavior of China’s secretive “spacecraft” has the world increasingly concerned that Earth’s orbit is about to become a battlefield.

International space tracking organizations, once exclusively the domain of national governments, give us insight into what’s going on above our heads.

A potentially deadly game of cat and mouse escalates between the circling Internet and communications relays, mapping cameras, climate monitors—and trash.

It’s getting crowded up there.

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation of satellites alone has added more than 5,800 orbital facilities over the past decade.

According to the latest estimates, the number of ‘active’ satellites is 9,900.

An even greater number of ‘dead’ satellites still linger up there, many of them likely to remain for centuries, along with the remains of rocket bodies and spent engines.

Gone are the days of simply throwing an ultra-expensive piece of machinery into orbit and hoping for the best.

Most of them are now equipped with small, extremely efficient thrusters. This sets them apart from the crowd after being unloaded from a delivery ‘truck’ like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

They allow satellites to choose their individual preferred orbits. And they help avoid the debris that increasingly clogs orbital spaceways—not to mention legitimate traffic.

But some have bigger thrusters and more fuel. We don’t know what else.

They skip orbital belts.

They fall behind sensitive pieces of commercial and military hardware.

We could eavesdrop, we could observe; they can interfere.

They could also practice destroying critical pieces of infrastructure when the order was given.

Chief among them are the elegant space planes of the United States and China, similar to reusable rocket planes.

The US launched its seventh Boeing X-37B mission on December 28 last year, and its activities are a closely guarded secret.

Just two weeks earlier, China had deployed its ‘Shenlong’ (Divine Dragon) for the third time, which had just been spotted releasing an unidentified object into orbit.

Unusual activities

“This object could be a subsatellite, or it could be a piece of hardware ejected before the end of the mission and deorbit,” says Dr. Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“The first space plane flight did something similar. It will be interesting to see if the plane will maneuver or land soon.”

It’s not the first time this space plane has been seen deploying cargo. Shortly after its launch late last year, it released six objects that were observed emitting signals before apparently being found.

“It will carry out reusable technology verification and space science experiments as planned, providing technical support for the peaceful use of space,” according to a statement released by China’s state-controlled Xinhua news agency at the launch of the spacecraft.

China’s first space mission of 2020 lasted just over two days. The second was for 276.

Objects were observed separating from the craft and remaining in orbit shortly before both landed.

This is unusual because under international convention, satellite deployments are generally announced for traffic control purposes – even if their exact nature and role is not disclosed.

But strange behavior in space is causing trepidation for the world’s defense forces.

The US Space Force, established in 2019 by President Donald Trump, is happy to talk about the threat posed by space conflict.

“I must counter this threat to ensure that the space capabilities we have come to depend on for our way of life will be there well into the future,” said its commanding officer, Gen. Chance Saltzman.

He won’t talk about his own orbital weapons systems outside of the general.

“We have a variety of capabilities that we can deploy, and we will continue to develop capabilities that allow us to maintain a credible deterrent posture,” Space Force Brigadier General Jesse Morehouse told a briefing in London last week.

But space powers are happy to emphasize Russian and Chinese space threats.

“For example, China has a new destructive sensor network that creates an unacceptable risk to our forward-deployed forces and allies, particularly here in the Pacific,” General Saltzman told an Australian audience earlier this month.

And then there is the still greater risk of treaty-defying anti-satellite missiles and “killer” satellites.

The nuclear option

“With just a handful of disruptive events, there can be a significant impact on missions carried out by satellites,” says Saltzman.

“The enormous advantages of the attack invite a pre-emptive first strike on orbit.”

The best way to mitigate this risk, he says, is to replace dozens of satellites with thousands.

“This would significantly increase the level of destruction required to deny any mission space, the calculus of the attack changes and the advantages of the first attack are nullified,” he explains.

Morehouse later added that Ukraine’s use of SpaceX’s Internet satellite service Starlink proved this principle.

“It doesn’t make sense that Russia would even try to shoot one down because there are thousands of them, and they don’t have thousands of anti-satellite missiles,” Morehouse explained.

But Russia has been accused of launching a deadly new type of “killer” satellite.

Kosmos-2576 was launched on May 16 into the same orbital plane (angle, not altitude) as USA 314, a US military reconnaissance satellite believed to be linked to the NORAD nuclear warning command.

US Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told a media briefing that Russia “launched into low Earth orbit a satellite that we estimate is likely to be an anti-space weapon that is likely capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit.”

So far, Kosmos-2576 has been observed to behave similarly to other Russian “inspector” satellites. It will likely adjust its orbit to approach USA 314, as similar “inspectors” have done to other targets in the past.

The US insists that he was armed.

Moscow has demonstrated that it has satellites capable of launching “missiles” into orbit, but has also threatened to use a nuclear device.

Such a warhead does not need to hit an individual space target.

The radiation flash caused by the explosion would disable any satellite in the field of view. However, Earth’s magnetic fields will also trap radiation in space. This cloud can remain in orbit for months and destroy any surviving satellites that pass through it.

Last month, Russia vetoed the UN Security Council’s reaffirmation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which banned the placement of weapons in orbit. This resolution specifically called on countries not to develop nuclear anti-satellite weapons that generate electromagnetic pulses.

“The United States believes that Russia is developing a new satellite with a nuclear device,” said US national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

“We heard that President Putin publicly said that Russia has no intention of putting nuclear weapons in space. If that were the case, Russia would not have vetoed this resolution.”

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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