The operation, monitored from the ground by military radars and telescopes, sounded like a wake-up call for Western space commands. On January 22, in a geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth, the Chinese satellite Shijian-21, in theory specialized in cleaning up space debris, approached a navigation satellite out of use, BeiDou-2 G2 which is part of a constellation of 44 satellites forming the Chinese GPS.
The drifting BeiDou-2 G2 is not only in geostationary orbit, but unlike similar devices, it is not completely fixed; it describes an ellipse, a little as if it were swinging at the end of a 36,000 kilometer thread attached to the center of the Earth. The combination of the two movements gives its trajectory the appearance of a gigantic spaghetti several thousand kilometers in amplitude. What is not the surprise of those who track and list the movements of satellites to find that Beidou 2G-2 was captured by SJ-21 at the end of an orbital race of several months of extraordinary complexity, and whose distance is measured in millions of kilometres. At the end of the mission, the dormant Beidou was placed in graveyard orbit where it will float until the end of time.
Until now, only the United States had mastered these space rendezvous techniques. Within days, the US Space Command as well as its European counterparts became aware of Chinese capabilities. “Because obviously, everyone saw it as a demonstration of force: if the Chinese are able to go and capture and move one of their satellites into a geostationary orbit, they can do it with any other machine”, comments the General Jean-Daniel Testé, former head of the Space Command (CDE). For space as in real life, explains the officer, there are weapons by definition and those by destination, the typical case being the recovery satellite used to neutralize an enemy satellite. Another fear is the end-of-life satellite transformed into a missile that will strike an observation or listening platform. “Any satellite at the end of its life is therefore a potential weapon as long as it still has propulsion capabilities to be directed towards an enemy machine…”
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The two major vulnerabilities in the event of a conflict are intelligence and navigation systems. For the first, China and the United States have the capacity to annihilate in a few hours most Earth observation satellites, as well as the electromagnetic listening platforms essential to the conduct of a war. Using missiles or high-power lasers fired today from the ground and tomorrow from space, dozens of devices can be neutralized in a few hours. The only way to counter the destruction of these space platforms is to build them in advance and plan the means of launch, hence the strategic importance of Space X whose launchers can be pre-empted by the Pentagon at any time.
National satellite positioning systems are particularly vulnerable. “We have seen in Ukraine hyper-efficient interference by Russian GPS with equipment costing a few thousand dollars, notes an independent analyst working for the US Space Command. The Chinese have developed alternative geo-positioning solutions for their military navy and because all smuggling and illegal fishing vessels are technically helped by the Chinese army to be discreet and do without GPS.”
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The level of Chinese preparation in the face of a possible destruction of space navigation systems worries the Pentagon and NATO, which are also observing the development of guidance stations deployed by China, for example in Namibia and Argentina. These radio beacons, technically classic but modernized, will be able to guide everything that floats or flies, such as hypersonic missiles which, flying in a low orbit, would pass through the South Pole to thwart the American anti-missile defenses concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere. The war in space is protean and discrete. His preparations are accelerating.
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