Chinese Space Garbageman is not a Weapon

The recent launch of China’s first Long March 7 rocket has put several notches in China’s progress in spaceflight. The first flight of a powerful new rocket. A stepping stone to the launch of China’s first cargo spacecraft.

Another test of components that will be used on the Long March 5 heavy-lift vehicle, also expected to make its debut later this year. A test of a scale model of a potential future astronaut capsule. Last but not least, we have the first launch from China’s new spaceport on Hainan island.

Long March 7 carried a small fleet of satellites and experiments, including the Aolong-1 spacecraft, which carries the English name “Roaming Dragon”. This satellite sports a robot arm, designed to grapple other satellites for de-orbiting.

China has launched a robot space garbageman. It’s about time. Space debris is a growing problem, and more countermeasures must be taken to combat this threat. De-orbiting satellites with robots is a useful option in some cases.

Curiously, a story in Hong Kong’s “South China Morning Post” on Tuesday June 28 accused China of launching a space weapon in the Roaming Dragon, with the garbage collection story as a cover. All things considered, this accusation seems somewhat unfair to the project. Space analysts around the world are aware that China has tested anti-satellite weapons.

China operates an extensive fleet of military support satellites and surely intends to make even more progress in this area in the future. But the Roaming Dragon seems like an impractical space weapon.

Satellites as weapons against other satellites fall into two basic categories. Some are spies, snooping on the telemetry or taking images of other spacecraft. Others are attack systems. The most effective way to attack another satellite is to blow it up, either through a direct impact or a close explosion that showers the target with shrapnel. All these systems have been tested by major spacefaring nations over the years.

So, what would a satellite with a robot arm do that was so militarily useful? It could grapple and attach itself to another satellite. But that would do little damage, and quickly alert its controllers. There would seem to be no strategic gain from such a move. Snooping is done discreetly, with remote observations and sometimes close flybys. You don’t actually touch another nation’s spacecraft.

You could always wrestle with a satellite and gradually render it useless by steering it out of alignment, but that invites countermeasures as controllers steer it back. Realistically, such “soft” attacks are better performed by hacking a satellite’s telemetry, a process known as “spoofing”.

Spoofing is probably the most effective anti-satellite weapon ever conceived. It replicates the speed and potency of cyberwarfare beyond the planet. Spoofing is powerful, and that’s probably why it is not discussed frequently.

A small satellite could, in theory, attach itself like a barnacle to a large spacecraft, like a space station. A robot arm could be useful for this. But crewed space stations are not prime military spacecraft. The “barnacle” could be a mine placed in peacetime that could be triggered in a time of conflict, but it would run the risk of detection by crews and controllers well before it was attached, or soon afterwards.

Let’s be clear. China is a major force in military space. Its rapid advances in this field pose a strategic challenge to global security. But the calling the Roaming Dragon a weapon test seems to be stretching credibility.


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