China has made vast progress in its space research and technology during these contemporary years, that too very efficiently. This kind of valuable progress has been making a statement among world leaders about the country’s commitment to its development in various facets. One of the most recent events that caught the eye of major world players is the expert maneuver of satellites it just executed in space, which shows the potential of being used for not just scientific purposes, but military usage too.
Grappling and Pulling of the Chinese satellite
What exactly happened is that, around the last week of January 2022, the Chinese satellite Shijian-21, or SJ-21, disappeared from its regular orbital position. Later, the same satellite was spotted doing a large maneuver, to bring it close to another dead satellite, a dead BeiDou navigational system satellite. Then the SJ-21 pulled the dead satellite out of its normal geosynchronous orbit and placed it into a dead zone graveyard orbit. Observers dubbed this whole procedure “appearing to be functioning as a space tug”.
Significance of change in orbits
A geosynchronous orbit is a general kind of orbital path that allows any satellite to match the rotation of the Earth, making it a valuable position to monitor weather, communication, and surveillance. On the other hand, graveyard orbits are distant from the planet, and are meant to hold old and defunct satellites at the end of their lives, so that they don’t collide with other satellites still in operational use when they are at the end of their lifespan.
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Objective of the Shijian-21
The satellite SJ-21 was launched in October 2021. It was officially designated as an On-Orbit Servicing Assembly and Manufacturing (OSAM) satellite, designed with the purpose of getting close to other satellites and conducting repairs, servicing and other maneuvers required. This kind of system of satellites could have a vast array of applications by extending the lifespan of satellites already in orbit, performing maintenance and repairs for them, and even assembling them out there in space itself.
Even before this update of maneuvering a whole defunct satellite, there have been reports of the SJ-21 testing its kick motors to manipulate different experimental payloads. Official Chinese media stated that the OSAM series satellites are designed to test and verify space debris mitigation technologies. But what is China’s real objective with the OSAM variant of satellites? It seems there are more questions than answers.
Why is this Grappling and pulling raising concerns?
This is the first time such a maneuver has been executed perfectly in space and that too from an already in place satellite to another. This has raised concerns in the international community, regarding its future scope of improvement and upgrade that could lead to potential militarization of the technology if done right. The OSAM’s remote proximity operation capabilities and the use of its robotic arms have a lot of untapped potential. Some unverified reports even claim that the SJ-21 was spotted using some kind of nets to get hold of debris and move it out of orbit. No, China is not the only country with OSAM capabilities; some European and American companies have also developed similar technology. But China is the first to actually execute this operation in space, and that too successfully.
The International Standpoint regarding China’s progress
China has been putting up satellites in space at almost twice the rate of the US during the past few years, and if this continues, China will replace the US as the major leader in space programs in its outreach capability within a decade or so. Given the development of OSAM capable satellites, they have the prospect to be even further enhanced and specialized for space warfare in the future, through the potential to displace internationally controlled satellites from their traditional orbit, disrupting communication and hindering monitoring capabilities of the said party or nation.
Although, yes it also does have very useful and helpful application by successfully rounding up debris and interjecting them to save other satellites of importance, the impact of just having possession of such technology could shift the power balance between countries, even if it never actually ends up being used for military warfare. China’s rapidly advancing space capabilities have caught the eye of many major players in the international scenario. Countries are being forced to acknowledge and respond by being encouraged to brandish their own variant of killer satellites.
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