China Demonstrates Space Tug in GEO As It Lays Out Five-Year Plan

China Demonstrates Space Tug in GEO As It Lays Out Five-Year Plan

China’s new quinquennial white paper laying out space ambitions for the next five years includes an expanding role in space environment governance such as mitigating space debris. Not mentioned, however, is China’s recent use of one of its spacecraft, Shijian-21, to tow another out of geostationary orbit. That was made public by a U.S. company that tracks objects in space. China’s silence is odd since it aligns so well with its stated objectives and once again underscores the country’s lack of transparency.

Every five years, China issues a space plan for the next five years. These “white papers” are high-level documents that espouse broad goals. Nonetheless they are useful because China reveals so little about its space program in the first place.

“China’s Space Programme: A 2021 Perspective” was issued on January 28, 2022 by the State Council Information Office a month later than anticipated. The immediate two prior plans were released at the end of December in 2011 and 2016 so this was expected in December 2021.

Some media headlines about the new report hyped China’s interest in sending humans to the Moon, but the document itself is vague on that score. It says only that in the next five years China will continue “studies and research on the plan for a human lunar landing, develop new-generation manned spacecraft, and research key technologies to lay a foundation for exploring and developing cislunar space.” China and Russia announced plans last year to work together on setting up an International Lunar Research Station. It begins with robotic missions and does not envision sending people there until 2036.

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

A range of Earth-orbiting space applications and space science missions also are spelled out in broad 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 reiterated in the report. Robotic missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids also are mentioned, with little or no new information.

What is new is the attention to “space environment governance.” Global interest in that topic, often referred to as space sustainability — ensuring space does not become so littered with debris it will be ususable by future generations — has grown significantly since China’s last five-year plan.

China’s own actions have sparked concern. Its 2007 antisatellite 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 reentry last May after placing Tianhe into orbit.

This new report explicitly says China will “Conduct in-orbit maintenance of spacecraft, collision avoidance and control, and space debris mitigation, to ensure the safe, stable and orderly operation of the space system.” It also references space debris mitigation guidelines and guidelines on the long-term sustainability of outer space activities developed through the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

That is why China’s silence on the recent maneuvers by Shijian-21 seems odd. China’s Xinhua news agency even reported that 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 optical telescope network, that broke the news. At a January 26 webinar sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Secure World Foundation, ExoAnalytics’ Brien Flewelling showed a video in which a narrator explains what happened after the company noticed SJ-21 “showed up missing.” The company had been 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 is about ExoAnalytics’ ability to find and track space objects and it points out that China used a “daytime gap” in those capabilities to dock SJ-21 and Compass G2 and move 3,000 kilometers above GEO. The company was able to reacquire the spacecraft and concluded SJ-21 “appeared to be functioning as a space tug.” SJ-21 later released Compass G2 and returned to GEO. ExoAnalytics continues to monitor it.

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

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. That 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 using residual onboard fuel to boost their GEO satellites into a higher “graveyard” orbit where they are out of the way. Sometimes not enough fuel remains, however, so demonstrating the ability to rendezous and dock with a derelict GEO satellite is useful.

SJ-21 was not the first spacecraft to dock with a GEO satellite. SpaceLogistics, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary, sent Mission Extension Vehicles to dock with Intelsat 901 in 2020 and Intelsat 1002 in 2021. Their purpose was not to move the satellites out of GEO, but to extend their mission lifetimes by serving as a new propulsion stage to maintain the proper orbital position. SpaceLogistics and Intelsat heralded the achievements with press releases and images.

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

The technical capabilities of rendezvous and proximity operations can be used for either civil or military purposes, of course, another reason for all the attention to SJ-21’s maneuvers and China’s secrecy about them. U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Space Force are increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of U.S. national security satellites in GEO. They just launched two new Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program satellites that keep an eye on what’s going on up there, a “neighborhood watch” of sorts, but have not said anything publicly about SJ-21.

Space debris mitigation is only once facet of China’s plans for space environment governance. The report also lists strengthening space traffic control; improving space debris monitoring; strengthening “the protection of its space activities, assets and other interests by boosting capacity in disaster backup and information protection, and increasing invulnerability and survivability”; increasing the monitoring of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and studying plans for building a NEO defense system; and building an “integrated space-ground space climate monitoring system” and improving services to respond to “catastrophic space climate events.”

China also promises to participate through the United Nations in “formulating international rules regarding outer space.”

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