China preparing for war in space? Chinese satellite grabs another in Earth orbit

First signs of Space war? Chinese satellite Shijian-21 or SJ-21 grabbed and threw another satellite into the ‘super-graveyard drift orbit’

| Updated on: Aug 21 2022, 23:45 IST
space, earth, china, space junk
China satellite move has space researchers worried on the potential uses of such satellites (Representative photo) (Pixabay)
space, earth, china, space junk
China satellite move has space researchers worried on the potential uses of such satellites (Representative photo) (Pixabay)

Is China really preparing for war in space, an actual star wars of sorts? On January 22, a Chinese satellite was detected moving out of its own orbit to grab another satellite out of its geosynchronous orbit and throwing it into a “super-graveyard drift orbit”. Graveyard orbits, also known as junk orbit or disposal orbit, are orbits placed farther away from Earth's geosynchronous orbit (where all the functional satellites lie) to keep the defunct satellites out of the way. At the end of their operational life, satellites are often pushed there. This unique move, performed by Chinese satellite Shijian-21 or SJ-21 has now raised concerns among various space organizations over the potential use-case of such satellites.

How SJ-21 managed to do it has also worried some scientists. As per a report by The Drive, the Chinese satellite secretly moved out of its regular axis during the daylight hours. Daylight hours make it harder to observe satellites as sunlight affects the visibility of optical telescopes. Later on, Shijian-21 was observed maneuvering a defunct CompassG2 or Beidou navigation satellite out of its geosynchronous orbit and into a graveyard orbit. This entire move was later reported by the commercial space awareness firm ExoAnalytic Solutions. Brien Flewelling, the firm's chief architect for space situational awareness (SSA), said that SJ-21 “appears to be functioning as a space tug” during a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Why is this move by SJ-21 satellite concerning

The major concern behind this behaviour of the Chinese satellite Shijian-21 is the potential use in the future. The biggest concern is the militarization of satellites to cause disruption to another country's communication system. This can be even more worrying during a war situation. Speaking to Breaking Defense, Todd Harrison, director of CSIS's Aerospace Project said, “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”.

However, what the Chinese satellite has done is neither illegal nor unethical. While concerns are being raised due to the potential application of the technology, they are in-line with China's economic and scientific goals, specifically relating to space debris, or space junk removal. It is also worth noting that this technology called ‘on-orbit servicing capabilities' is also being pursued by the USA and Russia.

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First Published Date: 02 Feb, 15:04 IST