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China should be able to disable or destroy SpaceX’s Starlink satellites if they pose a threat to national security. This is at least the opinion of a group of researchers from the Chinese army, which has just published in a national academic journal, Modern defense technologydocument in which they propose a series of countermeasures aimed at undermining the American satellite network.
The Starlink constellation currently has around 25,000 satellites. This high speed internet access service has grown exponentially in the last three months and now has over 400,000 users worldwide. But this success does not seem to please Yuanzhen Ren, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunicationswho has just written a study outlining different ways to develop China’s anti-satellite capabilities – a study co-authored by several leading scientists in China’s defense industry.
“ A combination of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ destruction methods must be adopted to cause some Starlink satellites to lose their functions and destroy the constellation’s operating system. “, they write in the document, according to the South China morning mail. In particular, they mention the establishment of a large-scale, high-sensitivity surveillance system to track each of the Starlink satellites. It is not known at this time whether or not this document reflects the official position of the entire Chinese government.
An alliance with American Defense deemed suspicious
Elon Musk has always been liked, even admired, by the Chinese, the latter being particularly tech-savvy – China is one of the most important markets for Tesla. The billionaire was considered a model of innovation. However, its popularity began to fluctuate last year when Starlink satellites nearly collided twice with China’s under-construction space station Tiangong – forcing China to perform evasive manoeuvres. In December, Beijing even filed a complaint with the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs against the US operator. China then accused the United States of not respecting the Space Treaty by endangering its astronauts.
Space is big, but Earth’s orbit is more limited. In addition to the many space debris that already pose a permanent threat to stations and spacecraft, the proliferation of Starlink minisatellites is only making the situation worse. Every week they are involved in around 1600 close encounters with spaceships! Hugh Lewis, head of the Astronautical Research Group at the University of Southampton, UK, estimates that eventually Starlink satellites will be involved in 90% of all conjunctions below one kilometer.
But it’s not so much the increased risk of collisions that worries Ren and his co-authors. They point to the fact that Starlink connections can increase the data transmission speed of American drones and stealth planes by more than 100 times. In addition, SpaceX has signed a contract with the US Department of Defense to develop new technologies based on the Starlink platform. Chinese scientists are talking about sensitive instruments capable of detecting and tracking hypersonic weapons. Starlink satellites are also equipped with ion thrusters, which allow them to quickly change orbits in preparation for an offensive against enemy space targets, they report.
In fact, the SpaceX constellation could be explored for other purposes. In 2020, two engineers at the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, presented a system based on the same satellites, capable of providing location accuracy 10 times greater than GPS, while being much less subject to interference — a “ difficult “ to block” navigation system, according to the MIT Technology Review.
Robustness and flexibility that frighten the Chinese
Given the number of Starlink satellites in orbit, the system is considered particularly robust; even if some malfunction, the system as a whole will not be affected. That’s why Chinese scientists are working to develop new anti-satellite capabilities.
For example, they suggest launching satellites carrying military payloads amidst a batch of Starlink devices. The Chinese military must also improve its surveillance systems, to obtain highly accurate images from these satellites so that experts can identify any unusual features, they added. The country must also be able to intercept signals from each Starlink satellite to detect any threats.
The direct approach (missile destruction) was ruled out: in addition to producing a lot of debris, it would be too expensive and not “profitable”. ” The Starlink constellation is a decentralized system. The confrontation is not about individual satellites, but about the whole system. This requires low-cost, high-efficiency measures. said the researchers.
China is said to already have some anti-satellite technologies, including lasers and communication jammers. A Beijing space scientist who was not involved in this study points out that the dominant Chinese view is not to attack the Starlink network, but to adopt “constructive” countermeasures. ” It means building our own internet satellite networks “, said to South China morning mail — China actually launched a Starlink-like project called StarNet. In any case, this document sounds like an open call for an attack by Starlink, underlines the expert.