Category Archives: China

When China Attacks?


SpaceWar! screenshot courtesy of MIT through Wikipedia.

It must have been a slow news week last week, because this story gained traction: Space warfare with Russia and China? Pentagon urged to prepare for itIn the story, an unlikely scenario unfolds where China attacks U.S. navigation satellites, the U.S. suddenly becomes helpless, and is at the mercy of the “Red Menace.” My response: really??? Is it really that easy?

First, let’s just look at the numbers. The current number of operational GPS satellites the U.S. Air Force is operating is 31. They have an advertised requirement of 24 satellites in operations (Where are these numbers coming from? Why, of course.). This doesn’t include the number of older backup satellites. So, if China wanted to cripple GPS, they’d have to take the constellation below the 24 required. That’s a lot of anti-satellite missiles. This being space, though, it’s not that simple as the scenario suggests: GPS satellites move.

A GPS satellite orbits in what is known as a medium Earth orbit (MEO), which is about 12,500 miles in altitude. A GPS satellite circles the Earth every 12 hours, which means it is occasionally in view of China’s landmass or the contested ocean areas for perhaps 3 to 5 hours of one orbit. So if China were to take out 8 GPS satellites with missiles, they’d have to be ready to take out more a few hours later. Is this possible? Let’s say it is. The media is quick to talk about earlier anti-missile tests the Chinese military conducted, with the 2007 test creating A LOT of debris in space. Which gets to the next point.

China is launching its own GPS-type satellites into orbit, called BeiDou. At my last count, they have about 20 of their own, and aiming to eventually have over 30 in orbit as well. These BeiDou satellites are in different orbits, with a majority, I think, in MEO. This means there’s the possibility of China shooting themselves in the foot if they shot enemy satellites in orbits of similar altitudes, which might then litter debris in some of their BeiDou satellites orbits. But space is a big place, so maybe not.

Keep in mind this scenario is only for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites, like GPS. Adversaries would have to launch a lot more to blind the U.S., especially when you consider there are commercial companies like Planet Labs with over 50 Earth observation satellites in low Earth orbit (they launched over 100 in the past two years). Are they as capable or robust as a DigitalGlobe WorldView, or a government-operated imagery satellite? Probably not. But they would be good enough for government work in case those bigger, juicier, expensive targets were taken out.

Back to GPS. There are more players in the PNT market than GPS and BeiDou. Russia has their GLONASS constellation, with over 20 satellites in orbit. The Europeans have Galileo, which is now quickly building up. The Indians are putting up their own regional satellite navigation system and are expecting to complete it this year. Each one of these PNT operators might have something to say about China launching missiles against U.S. GPS satellites. And if you don’t think China isn’t worried about India, you haven’t been paying attention.

A simpler, cheaper, and possibly more effective way to accomplish this is jamming. I’m ignorant of the power requirements to do this, but I understand the power used in the GPS signal is low, which means a bigger jammer could make sure no GPS signals get through to a particular area. And jamming could theoretically cover a particular area for longer than 3-5 hours. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t even need to have something shot into space.

The U.S. uses drones, and China does, too. An inexpensive, high-altitude drone, or a fleet of them, could deny GPS signals coming in. Imagine how frustrating it would be for the U.S. Navy to expend million-dollar missiles on drones costing thousands of dollars. Imagine how much more frustrating it would be to then see a new inexpensive drone take the place of the one shot down. If space must be involved, cubesats might be able to do the trick, although China would need to put quite a few in orbit to be effective. Oh yeah, wait–China can do that:

So, this kind of wargaming is fun. But let’s get back to the point, which is, sure, the U.S. military relies on space assets to conduct missions. But its assets, while seemingly vulnerable, aren’t as easy to get to as the article paints them. And the act of destroying satellites in orbit, while spectacular, does not help ANY space faring nation in the long run (unless they’ve developed a way to clean up the mess). It’s almost as if an attack on one is an attack on all.

And I mean ALL. If you have a smartphone, especially one bought within the past few years, you have GPS AND GLONASS receivers built right in to the brains of the phone. Let’s see, what apps use GPS? Uber, Yelp, Waze, and Google Maps for starters. Do you think citizens in China, Russia, India, or Europe use similar apps and tech on their phones? They’d be crazy not to.

Is the article’s scenario possible? Sure. Just like nuclear Armageddon is possible. Conflicts are always possible, especially when you have nations like China showing off shiny new muscles like a misguided gym-bro during Spring Break in Daytona, and the U.S. acting like the retired old man yelling at China to stay off of his lawn. But how likely is a conflict? There are cheaper, maybe even more effective ways to cripple a military’s use of satellite services than shooting them down. It’s our politicians job not to let it get that far.


China Sends Up Another ‘Practice’ Satellite

Image hosted on Astrowatch. A Long March (Changzheng) rocket launches with the newest Shijian-11 satellite aboard.

On Sept 28, China, unsurprisingly, launched another satellite in their weird passive/aggressive way.  At least it seems passive/aggressive with China advertising it’s a practice satellite but then keeps its mission secret.  On the other hand, the US does the same thing with its military and intelligence satellites as well.

The newest Chinese satellite is called the Shijian-11.  According to Astrowatch, the Chinese word “Shijian” means practice.  The satellite was launched into an orbit that matches the typical orbit of imagery satellites.  Zarya. info, a website that monitors the activities of certain satellites closely, lists the Shijian-11’s orbit as having an inclination (the angle of the satellite’s orbital path relative to the Earth’s equator) of slightly over 98 degrees.  It also lists the time it takes the Shijian-11 to orbit the Earth as about 98 minutes.  The satellite’s altitude isn’t very high, 687 x 705 km (425 x 438 mi), so it’s definitely a low earth orbit satellite.

It seems to be too soon to tell exactly what the satellite is doing, but it may be to help China’s space corps practice more with taking pictures of places on the Earth.  China does have other practice satellites in orbit, so a new one shouldn’t be too shocking.  But older Shijian satellites have done some interesting things, especially in 2013, when Zarya  was observing the maneuvering capability of particular Shijian satellites and a possible robotic arm on one of them to grab other satellites.

This is just another in a series of steps in which China seems to be moving quickly forward in learning more about space operations.   This post from The Diplomat even somewhat hesitatingly states that China’s government is ordering the People’s Liberation Army to establish an actual space force.  Between the practice satellites and their establishment of a space force, China seems to seriously be working on their space operations skills.  Shijian makes perfect, I suppose.

Uncovering Secret Sativa Farms From Space

Image from Xinhua, hosted on South China Morning Post Site.

Looks like some regional Chinese officials on the take have been found out, thanks to Chinese imagery satellites.  According to this South China Morning Post article, the first of the latest generation of Chinese imagery satellites, Gaofen-1, has been imaging an area in China that contained a very big marijuana farm.  The whacky weed farm is the biggest ever discovered since 1949.  Such a time span seems to indicate the pot farmers were very good at hiding their crops (possible), but maybe, in exchange for a small, unreported fee, local authorities weren’t trying very hard to disclose this newest discovery to their bigger brothers in the Chinese big-government sector.

Either way, the satellite’s images of the marijuana fields show a steady progression in Chinese imagery technology and Earth observation capabilities.  So perhaps their satellite imagery sensors are close to where US satellite technology was over 10 years ago.  This upgrade in imagery resolution might have caught someone off-guard, because there are certain ways to obscure these green ganjas, learned from US satellite plant detection attempts.  A simple search query “US Satellites marijuana detection” on DuckDuckGo immediately yielded a 420 Caribbean site with suggestions for how and where to plant marijuana crops to avoid overhead surveillance detection.

Those avoidance methods may or may not work.  Remember, some satellites, like DigitalGlobe’s Worldview-3, have different energy/color bands to detect particular wavelengths.  I’ve written about this sort of thing, here–start with Part 15, but 16 (careful, a small informational error in this article, but still useful), 17 (addresses error), 18, and a few others have wavelength/color information, too.  Apparently someone already learned some obscuration lessons (as evidenced by the 420 post), thanks to US and ESA drug war efforts, that Chinese Mary Jane cultivators are now re-learning.  Maybe China’s Great Firewall doesn’t allow easy access to such information?

The South China Morning Post’s article also noted that Gaofen-1 has helped analysts find opium fields and smuggling tunnels.  But, as I’ve noted with the Malaysian Airlines MH370 situation and why imagery satellites are having a difficult time with that mystery, the satellite operators have to know where to look in order to find the fields and tunnels.  So maybe some clever detective or miffed MAFIA-type gave a tip of where to look.

Gaofen-1 is one of two Gaofen satellites orbiting the Earth.  According to the Post, the Chinese would like to increase the number of satellites for their imagery constellation to seven, which means they will have beat DigitalGlobe’s current constellation of 5 imagery satellites.  But this kind of thing changes all the time, and government plans, even from a very top-down style of government, are very prone to political whims.






As the Worm Turns (In Your Mouth): China’s Lunar PALACE


When I think of self-contained environments, I can’t help but think of Bio-Dome.  It’s a failing, and I understand that, but my mind makes associations that way.  So imagine my Confucian (pun intended) when the Chinese announced last May that three intrepid volunteers had endured 105 days in Lunar PALACE (Permanent Astrobase Life-support Artificial Closed Ecosystem).

Of course I thought, “Cool! Chinese Pauly Shore probably had a blast.”


In the real world, three Chinese volunteers lived, breathed, ate, and slept in an environment meant to simulate encapsulated life on the moon.  You can see pictures of the volunteers and the Lunar PALACE environment in this China Daily post.  They are doing this because most of us don’t want to, but also because it needs to be done.  And I do really believe most of us in the US really wouldn’t want to do this, if only because of the one main staple the Chinese volunteers ate every day:  mealworms.

According to this New Scientist post, the volunteers tried everything they could, such as different spices and ways to cook them, to make the mealworms tastier.  Let’s see–stir fried mealworm with curry.  Microwaved mealworm with salt.  Boiled mealworm with steak sauce.  Fried and battered mealworm with dijon mustard dip.  Not just one mealworm, but dozens of them, daily, according to this South China Morning Post article.  Maybe I’m the loner here, but none of these sound very good.  The wriggling of the little buggers alone, as I tried to savor them in my mouth, would likely induce dry heaves (because if I were there, I’d be starving).

Also, mealworms almost seem like an engineer’s solution, and New Scientist does quote a NASA astronaut who says “Meat is meat.”  Fine–you eat that Mr. Story Musgrave.  I’d prefer a meal with a little less insect.  Is this a first world attitude?  You bet!  Not sorry about this particular dietary quirk at all.

The Lunar PALACE is a little over 1700 square feet big.  But the picture on makes it look like at least have of the unit is taken over by a server farm (but I think it’s actually a different farm–one for plants).  The crew grew and harvested vegetables, grains, and fruits in the human habitat.  After 105 days of staying in Lunar PALACE, the volunteers came out, looking healthy, and China learned a few things about living in an artificial environment.

The next step for the team working on the Lunar PALACE project is to add one more unit to the PALACE.  That way they can fit four volunteers for a possibly longer duration inside.

There are probably some people getting ready to volunteer for that.  I understand they’re waiting with “baited” breath.


A Chinese Direct Ascent GEO AntiSatellite Test in 2013?

China asat

Brian Weeden, from The Space Review, has written up a fairly well thought-out and long story about the May 2013 launch of a “sounding rocket” (according to the Chinese) from Xichang Satellite Launch Center.  The story, posted on 17 March 2014, gives some pretty good reasons to suspect that perhaps the Chinese were not telling the truth about their launch last year.  Perhaps it was the launch of a “new” kind of antisatellite (ASAT) weapon–one that might be able to target and destroy satellites in higher orbits, such as the geosynchronous and highly elliptically orbiting satellites.

The post isn’t all about the Chinese ASAT launch, though.  There’s a good history of ASAT technology, starting with the American programs, then going on to the Soviet ones.  Some of the Chinese Operationally Responsive Space has also been brought up, as well as how that might play out in a combat scenario.  There’s also the question of just how effective the Chinese ASAT threat is, and the author explores that question a bit.

The Chinese have been accomplishing some interesting things in space, including robotic grappling satellites that may be able to take out nearby satellites, training space operators for poorer countries, and their capstone of last year, the moon shot and activation of Jade Rabbit.  Brian Weeden’s post about China’s ASAT activities is a nice, thoughtful piece.  More of his asking the “whys” of the scenarios and not crying “space wolf” as others have done.  Worth a read, if only to learn some of the ASAT history.