China demonstrates space tug in GEO as it presents five-year plan –

China’s new five-year white paper setting out space ambitions for the next five years includes an increasing role in governance of the space environment, such as space debris mitigation. However, China’s recent use of one of its spacecraft, Shijian-21, to tow another out of geostationary orbit is not mentioned. This was made public by an American company that tracks objects in space. China’s silence is strange because it aligns so well with its stated goals and once again highlights the country’s lack of transparency.

Every five years, China publishes a space plan for the next five years. These “white papers” are high-level documents that embrace general objectives. Nonetheless, they’re helpful because China reveals so little about its space program in the first place.

“China’s Space Program: A 2021 Prospect” was released on January 28, 2022 by the State Council Information Office a month later than expected. The two immediate previous plans were released in late December in 2011 and 2016, so this was planned for December 2021.

Some media headlines about the new report have highlighted China’s interest in sending humans to the moon, but the document itself is vague on this. It only says that over the next five years, China will continue “study and research on the human lunar landing plan, develop next-generation manned spacecraft, and research key technologies to lay the foundation for the exploration and development of cislunar space”. China and Russia last year announced plans to work together to establish an international lunar research station. It starts with robotic missions and does not plan to send people there until 2036.

Launch of the Tianhe space station module on a Long March-5B rocket from Hainan Island on April 28, 2021. Source: Xinhua

A range of Earth orbiting space applications and space science missions are also described in general terms, including science aboard China’s three-module space station. The first module, Tianhe, was launched in 2021 and the other two, Wentian and Mengtian, are expected this year as the report recalls. Robotic missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids are also mentioned, with little to no new information.

What is new is the attention paid to the “governance of the space environment”. Global interest in this topic, often referred to as space sustainability – ensuring that space isn’t so littered with debris that it will be usable by future generations – has grown significantly since China’s last five-year plan.

China’s own actions have raised concerns. Its 2007 anti-satellite test against one of its own satellites created more than 3,000 pieces of debris that continue to endanger other space objects, and its Long March-5B rocket stage made an uncontrolled re-entry last May after having placed Tianhe in orbit.

This new report explicitly states that China “will carry out in-orbit maintenance of spacecraft, collision prevention and control, and space debris mitigation, to ensure the safe, stable and orderly operation of the space system.” It also refers to the Guidelines on Space Debris Mitigation and the Guidelines on the Long-Term Sustainability of Space Activities developed by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

This is why China’s silence on the recent Shijian-21 maneuvers seems odd. China’s Xinhua news agency even reported that the SJ-21’s purpose was to “test and verify space debris mitigation technologies” when it was launched last October.

Instead, it was ExoAnalytic Solutions, a company that monitors space objects using a global network of optical telescopes, that broke the news. During a January 26 webinar sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Secure World Foundation, Brien Flewelling of ExoAnalytics showed a video in which a narrator explains what happened after the company noticed that SJ-21 “was missing”. The company was monitoring the satellite as it conducted proximity operations with an old Chinese navigation satellite, Compass G2, part of the Beidou system. Much of the video focuses on ExoAnalytics’ ability to find and track space objects and highlights that China used a “diurnal gap” in those capabilities to dock SJ-21 and Compass G2 and move at 3,000 kilometers above GEO. The company was able to reacquire the spacecraft and concluded that the SJ-21 “appeared to operate like a space tug”. SJ-21 then released Compass G2 and returned to GEO. ExoAnalytics continues to monitor it.

SpaceLogistics Mission Extension Vehicle-1 in a “quasi-hold” position 20 meters from the Intelsat-901 satellite to which it docked on February 25, 2020. Credit: SpaceLogistics

The geostationary orbit is unique. Located 35,800 kilometers (22,300 miles) above the equator, a satellite placed there will maintain a fixed position relative to a point on Earth. This makes it extremely useful for everything from satellite communications to weather satellites to a variety of military operations like detecting launches from other countries. Space is vast, but a finite number of satellites can operate there. For decades, a best practice for government and commercial satellites has been to use residual onboard fuel to propel their GEO satellites into a higher “graveyard” orbit where they are out of the way. However, sometimes there is not enough fuel left, so it is useful to demonstrate the ability to meet and dock with an abandoned GEO satellite.

SJ-21 was not the first spacecraft to dock with a GEO satellite. SpaceLogistics, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, sent mission extension vehicles to dock with Intelsat 901 in 2020 and Intelsat 1002 in 2021. Their goal was not to move the satellites out of GEO, but to extend their lifespan. life by serving as a new propulsion stage to maintain the correct orbital position. SpaceLogistics and Intelsat announced the achievements with press releases and images.

The Secure World Foundation’s Program Planning Director Brian Weeden tweeted that China’s SJ-21 maneuver appears to be a “responsible decision”, but he wishes they “were a little more open about it. “.

The technical capabilities of rendezvous and proximity operations can be used for civilian or military purposes, of course, another reason for all the attention given to the SJ-21 maneuvers and China’s secrecy about them. US Space Command and US Space Force are increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of US national security satellites to GEO. They just launched two new geosynchronous space situational awareness program satellites that keep an eye on what’s going on up there, a kind of “neighborhood watch”, but haven’t said anything publicly about SJ- 21.

Space debris mitigation is just one facet of China’s space environmental governance plans. The report also lists the strengthening of space traffic control; improve monitoring of space debris; strengthen “the protection of its activities, assets and other space interests by enhancing disaster backup and information protection capability, and increasing invulnerability and survivability”; increase near-Earth object (NEO) surveillance and study plans to build a NEO defense system; and building an “integrated space-ground climate monitoring system” and improving services to respond to “catastrophic space climate events”.

China also promises to participate through the United Nations in “the development of international rules concerning outer space”.

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