Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
That appears to be the stance of researchers in China working to disable and potentially eliminating SpaceX’s Starlink satellites in the not-quite-far-fetched scenario in which they represent a threat to the country’s national security, according to a report from the south China Morning Post.
Although this has not been confirmed, scientists linked to the Chinese defense industry explained their position on anti satellite defenses in a recent article published in the journal Modern Defense Technology.
But China may need new weapons to take on SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.
China says Starlink satellites can amplify US military capabilities
The document argues that China should develop anti-satellite capabilities, the first steps of which would require a massive surveillance system capable of tracking & monitoring each of Musk’s satellites. Ren Yuanzhen is the lead study’s researcher and works at the Beijing Institute of tracking and telecommunications, which is under the People Liberation Army strategic support force.
“A combination of soft & hard removal methods must be adopted to render some Starlink satellites lose their functions & destroy the constellation’s operating system,” reads the recent article. When this happens, the first idea is to pursue and possibly destroy such a large constellation.
Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Elon Musk has seen a surge in popularity in China despite growing criticism after 2 Starlink satellites were launched precariously close to the China space station in 2021. Yuanzhen believes that Starlink satellites could offer the American stealth fighter more than 100 times its data transmission speed fighter jets & drones.
In the event of open war, those might become a crucial asset — one that China won’t like.
China wants to monitor Starlink launches for military devices
And SpaceX has already signed a deal with the US Department of Defense to develop novel technologies to equip Starlink satellites, such as instruments that can track hypersonic weapons in real time. In case you missed it, these things move incredibly fast, five times faster than the speed of sound and even higher velocities while inside of earth atmosphere.
But Yuanzhen noted that how Starlink satellites have ion thruster that allow them to perform a rapid orbit change in-case they are attacked. And with more than 2,300 currently in orbit, the consensus is that Starlink satellites are not vulnerable to attack. because the constellation can function even if many individual satellites lost.
One strategy for China is to upgrade its existing space surveillance technology so it can capture high-resolution images of Starlink batch launches to see if any military payloads were snuck in a SpaceX launch. The country also claims to have ground-based laser imaging equipment capable of doing this (with millimeter resolution). China also wants optical & radar imagery, but needs to monitor signals from discrete Starlink satellites to confirm potential military threats, Yuanzhen added.
SpaceX’s Starlink could function despite great losses
The problem with any anti-satellite defense is the result of its execution: a gigantic amount of space debris that threatened the International Space Station last year when Russia launched an anti-satellite missile. Consequently, China would need a way to take-down Elon Musk’s entire satellite system. Wholesale. “The Starlink constellation represents a decentralized system,” the researchers said in the report.
“The confrontation is not about individual satellites, but about the system as a whole.” Therefore, China needs anti-satellite weapons that break with convention, such as microwaves, capable of burning, or at least jamming, communications & electronic parts. As tensions between the US & China continue, it is sad to see both powers increasingly viewing space as an extension of military power by other means. But somehow it feels inevitable.