Chinese Satellite Reportedly Grappled, Moved Another Spacecraft Away From Orbit
© AP Photo / Ng Han GuanA Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying a crew of Chinese astronauts in a Shenzhou-12 spaceship lifts off at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan in northwestern China, Thursday, June 17, 2021.
© AP Photo / Ng Han Guan
The event was discussed as part of a webinar on managing the risks of satellite close approaches in geostationary orbit, hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Secure World Foundation earlier this week.
Last week, China reportedly demonstrated yet another advancement in space-based technology and capabilities as an analytics firm claimed to have seen a satellite "grab" another one and yank it from its orbit.
According to a Breaking Defense report upon the event, China's Shijian-21 satellite, or SJ-21, vanished from view on January 22 and resurfaced while performing a "large maneuver" to approach a dead BeiDou Navigation System satellite. The SJ-21 then yanked the BeiDou from its orbit and deposited it in a "graveyard orbit" a few hundred kilometers away, where it is unlikely to interact with or collide with live satellites.
Graveyard orbit is typically classified as 300 kilometers above geostationary orbit, or around 36,000 kilometers above the ground.
The information was reportedly presented by Brian Flewelling, chief architect for space situational awareness (SSA) at ExoAnalytic Solutions, who showed footage from the event.
"We continue to track SJ-21 and monitor it for conjunctions with all known space objects. The ability to maintain custody of SJ-21 after this large daytime maneuver is an important and unique capability of Exo’s commercial SSA network," Flewelling is quoted as saying.
The latest tracking data acquired earlier this week from ExoAnalytic's telescopes shows the SJ-21 separating from the BeiDou, leaving the latter in the eccentric "super-graveyard drift orbit," Flewelling told the outlet after the event.
SJ-21 has now reportedly returned to a near-geostationary orbit.
“What we know for sure is what we can observe by its actions in space — the intent behind it and what China plans to do with this technology is a more subjective assessment,” he added.
The "gap" in observations was reportedly caused by the fact that it docked with the now-defunct satellite during the day when telescopes are unable to image.
According to the report, the SJ-21 maneuver is consistent with the US initiative of On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) capabilities, which the US and Europe have also pursued. Such missions would reportedly come within Space Command's operations and might be a factor in future Artemis program launches.
"Artemis is about more than getting back to the Moon; it’s about sustained human presence on the Moon and the ultimate goal of going to Mars," Larry Huebner, NASA technical lead for OSAM-2 said at the event, per Fox News.
The SJ-21 was reportedly supposed to "test and verify space debris mitigation technologies," but the ability to shift satellites around signifies that China has alarming capabilities for orbital manipulation of other nations' satellites, according to US experts.
Also at the webinar, CSIS, the Secure World Foundation, and the University of Texas at Austin introduced a new web-based project to watch real-time and forecast movements of satellites and space debris, with the goal of improving transparency about close approaches in orbit.
An OSAM-capable vehicle may ultimately be equipped with a 3D printer to generate new pieces for production in space, allowing space vehicles to achieve remarkable capabilities. The US reportedly intends to launch a "servicer" satellite in 2025.