China plans to launch its own satellite internet network
Chinese analogue of Starlink (Photo:gizchina.com)
The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Space Engineering University announced the development of a constellation of satellites similar to Starlink. In this way, China plans to compete with Starlink – creating its own alternative to an American service.
In May 2019, U.S. private space company SpaceX began launching Starlink communications satellites into orbit. In four years, almost 3,600 of these satellites have been launched – 65% of all active satellites orbiting the planet.
Starlink satellite internet provides low latency and high speed connections by placing transmitters in low Earth orbit, several hundred kilometers above the Earth's surface. In the near future, SpaceX plans to expand its Starlink constellation to 14,000 satellites, later growing it to up to 44,000
A number of countries, including China and Russia, have accused Elon Musk's company of using Starlink for military purposes. SpaceX thus plans to block access to its satellite Internet for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. At the same time, the company is creating analogous infrastructure, with its Starship rocket to be used by the U.S. Army.
There are no real alternatives to Starlink yet. However, Chinese scientists recently announced the development of their own constellation of Internet satellites, codenamed "GW."
This Chinese constellation of 13,000 satellites would add to an already cluttered near-Earth space, and may trigger a new space race between world powers. What would that mean for the world?
Elon Musk's Starlink is one of the factors that swung the war in favor of Ukraine. Russia tried its best to destroy all our communications. Now they can't do it. Statlink works under fire from artillery. They even work in Mariupol, declared one Ukrainian defender last April.
In response to this, officials from Russia and China immediately made statements about possibly destroying Starlink satellites. However, the start of a war in outer space runs the risk of rendering the entire near-Earth space unusable and making it impossible to launch any launch vehicles into space – already a growing problem due to the prevalence of space debris, and exacerbated, ironically, by the Starlink constellation itself.
While Russian propagandists limited themselves to a proposal to knock down the Starlink constellation using nuclear weapons, China, for its part, presented a more realistic and ambitious plan: the PLA University of Space Engineering published a report detailing plans by Chinese scientists and the military to create a constellation of 13,000 satellites similar to Starlink.
The new constellation will be owned by the China Satellite Network Group Co. Ltd, an aerospace company established in the early 2000s, which today is wholly owned by Chinese state scientific and technical corporation CASC.
The head of the new project, Xu Jang, did not give a date for the launch of the first satellites, but declared that this will be done before the deployment of all Starlink transmitters is completed.
“Our country will take its place in low orbit and prevent the overuse of the Starlink constellation by limiting communication resources at this altitude,” the report says.
The authors of the project also say that Chinese satellites will be placed in orbits that the Americans have not yet managed to occupy, and they expect that they will be able to compete with Starlink.
One of the key points in the report was the mention of satellites in the planned constellation that would be able to carry payloads for "long-term surveillance of Starlink devices at close range” – opening the door to their possible incapacitation.
Chinese scientists explained this possibility, of destroying enemy satellites, as a potential danger to China: “Starlink satellites can use their orbital maneuverability to actively hit and destroy nearby targets in space.” There is, however, no evidence that Starlink satellites are capable of counter-satellite activity.
At this stage, the Chinese are expected to develop new radar technologies for tracking and identifying Starlink satellites. The university’s report also suggested that the Chinese government work with other countries to "form a coalition against Starlink."
In the past, China has repeatedly demanded that SpaceX release accurate data on the orbits of its Starlink satellites.
Nuclear weapons in space
A few months ago, PLA researchers also presented a computer simulation of an assessment of the impact of nuclear anti-satellite missiles.
The computer simulation was run by scientists from the Northwestern Institute of Nuclear Technology in Xi'an, which is run by the Chinese military. The model showed that a 10-megaton warhead could pose a serious threat to near-Earth satellites if detonated at an altitude of about 80 km above the Earth's surface.
The lead author of the study, Chinese nuclear physicist Liu Li, explained that five minutes after such an explosion, a cloud of more than 140,000 square km could form, which would rise to a height of about 500 km.
“The strong residual radiation of the debris cloud could cause the failure of spacecraft moving in it, such as satellites, or even cause direct damage that can lead to their destruction,” the researchers said.
The simulation demonstrates that the absence of a dense atmosphere in low Earth orbit could make a nuclear explosion to destroy satellites "overwhelmingly risky and ineffective."
Therefore, China agreed that the physical destruction of several satellites will not be able to globally affect the operation of the entire system. Moreover, such an attack could create even more space debris in Starlink orbits, causing the uncontrolled destruction of not only this constellation, but also other satellites.
Acting proactively, in the summer of 2022, ./S. Space Command confirmed the creation of the new Space Delta 18 division, which will protect American satellites from "kinetic threats."
Kinetic threats are those that can physically disrupt or destroy satellites and other systems. Non-kinetic threats include anti-satellite weapons that can jam signals or disorient devices with beams of directed energy.
The new division will operate through the National Space Intelligence Center (NSIC) based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. In total, Space Delta 18 comprises several hundred civilian and military specialists.
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