China has sparked new espionage fears over “mega constellation” plans of up to 13,000 satellites operating in low Earth orbit, similar to SpaceX Starlink.
The network is said to be part of China’s 5G mobile Internet rollout, with the first companies awarded contracts to begin development work in Chongqing city.
Details are vague about what exactly the network will cover, or how it will operate, but the aim is to fill gaps in terrestrial communication and serve rural areas.
Reports suggest this renewed push comes amid concerns from China about an international rush on frequencies, allowing data to flow from Earth to space.
Any move China makes in space raises concerns among security experts, including what use it could be for a global constellation of Earth-facing satellites.
China has sparked new espionage fears over “mega constellation” plans of up to 13,000 satellites operating in low Earth orbit, similar to SpaceX Starlink. stock image
Having a satellite internet constellation is considered a top project for the Chinese government, and could see it provide communications services all over the world, not just in China, and compete with western operators.
A megaconstellation is made up of hundreds to thousands of satellites that work together to cover all parts of the Earth, most of which operate several hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface, to provide Internet services.
But relations between China and the West are currently in a freeze, thanks to ongoing anger over the cover-up of the rise of the COVID-19 outbreak.
And any widespread satellite launches are likely to lead to fears that they will be used to spy on the United States and its allies.
China’s ongoing saber-rattling over Taiwan has also infuriated island democracy allies, with growing fears that communist leader Xi Jinping could launch an attack in an attempt to “reunite” Taiwan with mainland China – despite strong opposition from its residents.
SpaceX Starlink is the most developed, with nearly 2,000 satellites in operation, but Amazon plans to launch thousands, and the European Union is exploring its options.
In this new development, a communications base station will be built in Chongqing, according to the Chinese state media publication, Science and Technology Daily.
The network is said to be part of China’s 5G mobile Internet rollout, with the first companies awarded contracts to begin development work in Chongqing city. stock image
WHAT IS SPACE SPACE?
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that could be as large as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside about $700 billion (£555 billion) worth of space infrastructure.
But only 27,000 are tracked, and with the fragments capable of traveling at speeds of more than 27,777 mph (27,000 kmh), even small pieces of satellites can seriously damage or destroy.
However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups don’t work in a vacuum and temperatures are too low for substances like tape and glue.
Grabs based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around the Earth is non-magnetic.
Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, require or cause vigorous interaction with the debris, which could push these objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.
Scientists point to two events that have seriously exacerbated the problem of space debris.
The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecom satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.
The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.
Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.
One is low Earth orbit used by satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.
The other is in geostationary orbit and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that need to maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.
Companies that awarded the contract to build the satellite center in Chongqing say the city offers a range of strategic benefits, including human resources and economy.
One of these companies, Commsat, says international competition for frequency and resources in low Earth orbit is driving its development.
There is also currently limited data processing capacity within China, and for a global network, China would also need to deploy ground stations worldwide.
The first details of this megaconstellation were released in late 2020, when the government submitted an application to the International Telecommunication Union for spectrum allocation – for two satellite constellations in low Earth orbit.
These were called ‘GW’ and counted a total of 12,992 satellites made up of subconstellations orbiting from 310 miles to 711 miles.
The plan would be for them to operate in a range of frequency bands and potentially operate all over the world, providing services to different countries.
It has broad support at the highest levels of the Chinese government and is coming along with plans for a series of satellite and space sector clusters across China.
This is part of a five-year plan, running through 2026, that calls for an integrated network of communications, Earth observation and navigation satellites.
China has already launched Earth observation satellites, including two called Gaofen, which China says should be monitored for marine disasters, the marine environment and water conservation.
No details have been released on the capabilities of the satellites, which launched in November to replace previous-generation devices, but state media say they will also be used for road network design, surveying and crop yield estimates.
They have an unprecedented resolution, as sharp as 5 inches, which would put them on a par with US keyhole-class spy satellites.
China has also completed the rollout of BeiDou, the alternative to the US GPS satellite navigation system, making it available worldwide.
In December, China also approved production of a broadband communications test satellite built by Commsat as a test device.
It’s not just the Chinese government launching satellites to Low Earth Orbit, Beijing-based Galaxy Space plans to launch six communications satellites this year.
There seems to be a competition among non-state companies in China, which could eventually develop into the new national satellite project.
The State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) has called for the orderly development of small satellites.
Details are vague about what exactly the network will cover, or how it will operate, but the aim is to fill gaps in terrestrial communication and serve rural areas. stock image
It provides guidelines for companies operating in this space, including frequencies to use, production, orbit safety and collision avoidance.
What’s not clear is whether the mega-constellation will consist of these smaller corporate launches, or run independently – further increasing the LEO population.
In addition to concerns about the true purpose of this global network of satellites, it also increases the risk of space collisions, which could damage other spacecraft.
China has recently expressed concerns about SpaceX Starlink operations, with two close approaches to the Tianhe space station – in July and October last year.
The government approached the UN in Vienna about the approaches and risks to astronauts, and asked the international body to remind countries of their international responsibility for space activities.
CHINA SPEED UP TO BECOME SPACE SUPERPOWER WITH MARS AND MOON MISSIONS
Chinese space agency officials are working to become a space superpower along with the US and Russia.
They’ve already sent the first lander to explore the far side of the moon and share photos of the part of our closest neighbor we rarely see as part of the Chang’e-4 mission.
In November 2020, they sent the Chang’e-5 spacecraft to the moon to collect and return the first samples of lunar soil in 45 years.
This was done in collaboration with the European Space Agency, which provided tracking information for the Chinese spacecraft.
Chang’e-6 will be the first mission to explore the moon’s south pole and is expected to launch in 2023 or 2024.
Chang’e-7 will study the land surface, composition and space environment in a general mission, according to the Chinese Space Authority, while Chang’e-8 will focus on technical surface analysis.
China is also reportedly working on building a lunar base using 3D printing technology and sending a future manned mission to the surface.
Mission number eight will likely lay the groundwork for this as it aims to verify the technology destined for the project.
The CNSA is also building a space station in orbit where Chinese astronauts will conduct science experiments, similar to the crew of the International Space Station.
The agency also launched a mission to Mars in the summer of 2020 and landed a rover on the Red Planet in May 2021.
China is also said to be working on a project to build a solar power generator in space, which would send energy back to Earth and become the largest man-made object in orbit.
They also have a number of ambitious space science projects, including satellites to hunt for signs of gravitational waves and Earth observation spacecraft to track climate change.