China sparks fresh spying fears as it reveals plans to launch 13 THOUSAND satellites into space which it claims will form ‘megaconstellation’ and provide powerful 5G internet
- China applied for spectrum for a ‘national network’ of internet satellites in 2020
- The latest development includes funding for ground base-stations in China
- There are also moves for construction of the 13,000 satellites in low Earth orbit
- It isn’t clear exactly what the satellites will be used for, but experts predict they will operate in a similar way to SpaceX Starlink, providing rural internet services
China has sparked fresh spying fears over plans for ‘megaconstellation’ of up to 13,000 satellites operating in low Earth orbit, similar to SpaceX Starlink.
The network is said to be part of the Chinese 5G mobile internet rollout, with the first firms given contracts to begin development work in the city of Chongqing.
Details are vague over exactly what the network will cover, or how it will work, but the aim is to fill gaps in terrestrial communications and serve rural areas.
Reports suggest that this renewed push comes amid concern from China over an international rush for frequencies, that allow data to flow from Earth to space.
Any moves China makes in space raises concerns among security experts, including what uses there might be for a global constellation of Earth-facing satellites.
China has sparked fresh spying fears over plans for ‘megaconstellation’ of up to 13,000 satellites operating in low Earth orbit, similar to SpaceX Starlink. Stock image
Having a satellite internet constellation is considered a top level project for the Chinese government, and could see it provide communications services around the world, not just in China, competing with western operators.
A megaconstellation is made up of hundreds to thousands of satellites that work together to cover all areas of the Earth, most operating a few hundred miles above the surface of the planet, to deliver internet services.
But relations between China and the West are currently in the deep-freeze, thanks to ongoing fury over its cover-up of the emergence of the COVID-19 outbreak.
And any widespread launch of satellites is likely to lead to fears they’ll be used to spy on the United States and its allies.
China’s continued saber-rattling over Taiwan has also continued to infuriate the island democracy’s allies, with fears growing that Communist leader Xi Jinping could launch an attack in a bid to ‘reunite’ Taiwan with mainland China – despite strong opposition from its residents.
SpaceX Starlink is the most developed, with nearly 2,000 satellites in operation, but Amazon plans to launch thousands, and the European Union is exploring its options.
This new development will see a communications base station built in Chongqing, according to Chinese state media publication, Science and Technology Daily.
The network is said to be part of the Chinese 5G mobile internet rollout, with the first firms given contracts to begin development work in the city of Chongqing. Stock image
WHAT IS SPACE JUNK?
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some US$700 billion (£555bn) of space infrastructure.
But only 27,000 are tracked, and with the fragments able to travel at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000kmh), even tiny pieces could seriously damage or destroy satellites.
However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups do not function in a vacuum and temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.
Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.
Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.
Scientists point to two events that have badly worsened the problem of space junk.
The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.
The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.
Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.
One is low Earth orbit which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.
The other is in geostationary orbit, and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.
Companies awarded the contract to build the satellite center in Chongqing, say the city offers a range of strategic advantages, including workforce and economy.
One of these companies, Commsat, says international competition for frequency, as well as resources in low Earth orbit, are driving the development.
There is also currently limited data processing capacity within China, and for a global network China would also need to deploy ground stations worldwide.
First details of this megaconstellation were released late in 2020, when the government applied to the International Telecommunication Union for spectrum allocation – for two low Earth orbit satellite constellations.
These had been named ‘GW’ and totaled 12,992 satellites, made up of sub-constellations orbiting from 310 miles up to 711 miles.
The plan would be for them to operate across a range of frequency bands, and potentially operate around the world, providing services to different nations.
It has broad support at the top levels of the Chinese government, and comes alongside plans for a range of satellite and space sector clusters across China.
This forms part of a five-year plan, running until 2026, that calls for an integrated network of communications, Earth observation, and navigation satellites.
China has already launched Earth observation satellites, including two called Gaofen, which China claims are to monitor for marine disasters, the maritime environment and water conservation.
No details have been released about the capabilities of the satellites, launched in November to replace previous generation devices, but state media says they will also be used for road network design, land surveys and crop yield estimation.
They have unprecedented resolution, as sharp as 5 inches, which would put them on the same level as US-keyhole class spy satellites.
China has also completed the rollout of BeiDou, its alternative to the US-owned GPS satellite navigation system, making it available globally.
As recently as December, China also approved production of a broadband communication test satellite, built by Commsat as a test device.
It isn’t just the Chinese government launching satellites to Low Earth Orbit, Beijing-based Galaxy Space plans to launch six communications satellites this year.
There seems to be a competition among non-state-owned operators in China, that could eventually evolve into the new national satellite project.
The State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), has called for the orderly development of small satellites.
Details are vague over exactly what the network will cover, or how it will work, but the aim is to fill gaps in terrestrial communications and serve rural areas. Stock image
It is providing guidance for companies operating in this space, including the frequencies to use, production, safety in orbit and collision avoidance.
What isn’t clear is whether the megaconstellation will be made up of these smaller company launches, or run independently – further adding to the LEO population.
As well as concerns over the true purpose of this global network of satellites, it also increases the risk of in-space collisions, that could damage other spacecraft.
China recently expressed concern over SpaceX Starlink operations, with two close approaches to the Tianhe space station – in July and October last year.
The government approached the UN in Vienna about the approaches, and risk to astronauts, asking the international body to remind nations of their international responsibility for space activities.
CHINA STEPS UP PLANS TO BECOME SPACE SUPERPOWER WITH MARS AND MOON MISSIONS
Officials from the Chinese space agency are working to become a space superpower alongside the US and Russia.
They have already sent the first lander to explore the far side of the moon – sharing photos from the part of our nearest neighbour we rarely see as part of the Chang’e-4 mission.
In November 2020 they sent the Chang’e-5 space probe to the moon to collect and return the first samples of lunar soil in 45 years.
This was done in collaboration with the European Space Agency who provided tracking information for the Chinese spaceship.
Chang’e-6 will be the first mission to explore the south pole of the moon and is expected to launch in 2023 or 2024.
Chang’e-7 will study the land surface, composition, space environment in an overall mission, according to the Chinese space authority, while Chang’e-8 will focus on technical surface analysis.
China is also reportedly working on building a lunar base using 3D printing technology and sending a future crewed mission to the surface.
Mission number eight will likely lay the groundwork for this as it strives to verify the technology earmarked for the project.
The CNSA is also building an Earth-orbiting space station where Chinese astronauts will conduct scientific experiments, similar to the crew of the International Space Station.
The agency also launched a mission to Mars in the summer of 2020 and landed a rover on the Red Planet in May 2021.
China is also said to be working on a project to build a solar power generator in space, that would beam energy back to Earth and becoming the largest man made object in orbit.
They also have a number of ambitious space science projects including satellites to hunt for signs of gravitational waves and Earth observation spacecrafts to monitor climate change.
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