China sparks new spy fears by revealing plans to launch 13 THOUSAND satellites

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China has sparked new spy fears over planned “megaconstellation” of up to 13,000 satellites operating in low Earth orbit, similar to SpaceX Starlink.

The network would be part of China’s 5G mobile internet rollout, with the first companies winning contracts to begin development work in the city of Chongqing.

Details are vague on exactly what the network will cover or how it will operate, but the aim is to fill gaps in terrestrial communications and serve rural areas.

Reports suggest the renewed push comes as China worries about an international scramble for frequencies, which allow data to flow from Earth to space.

Any move by China into space is raising concerns among security experts, including the uses there could be for a global constellation of Earth-facing satellites.

China has sparked new spy fears over planned “megaconstellation” of up to 13,000 satellites operating in low Earth orbit, similar to SpaceX Starlink. Image bank

Having a satellite internet constellation is seen as a high profile project for the Chinese government, and could see it provide communications services around the world, not just in China, in competition with Western carriers.

A megaconstellation is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of satellites that work together to cover all regions of the Earth, most operating a few hundred kilometers above the planet’s surface, to provide Internet services.

But relations between China and the West are currently at a standstill, thanks to ongoing fury over its cover-up of the emerging COVID-19 outbreak.

And any widespread launch of satellites is likely to raise fears that they will be used to spy on the United States and its allies.

China’s continued slashing of Taiwan has also continued to infuriate island democracy allies, with fears growing that communist leader Xi Jinping is launching an attack in a bid to ‘reunite’ Taiwan with mainland China – despite the strong opposition of its inhabitants.

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.

The new development will see the construction of a communications base station in Chongqing, according to Chinese state media publication Science and Technology Daily.

The network would be part of China's 5G mobile internet rollout, with the first companies winning contracts to begin development work in the city of Chongqing.  Image bank

The network would be part of China’s 5G mobile internet rollout, with the first companies winning contracts to begin development work in the city of Chongqing. Image bank

WHAT IS SPACE JUNK?

There are around 170 million pieces of so-called “space junk” – left over from missions that can be as big as used rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some 700 billion US dollars (£555 billion) of space infrastructure.

But only 27,000 are being tracked, and with the fragments capable of traveling at speeds in excess of 16,777 mph (27,000 km/h), even tiny bits could seriously damage or destroy satellites.

However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space because suction cups don’t work in a vacuum and the temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.

Magnet-based grippers are useless because most debris orbiting the Earth is non-magnetic.

Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, require or cause powerful interaction with debris, which could push these objects in unintended and unpredictable directions.

Scientists point to two events that have seriously aggravated the problem of space waste.

The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium communications 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 ancient Fengyun weather satellite.

Experts also pointed to two sites that have become disturbingly crowded.

One is low Earth orbit which is used by satellite navigation satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble Telescope, among others.

The other is in geostationary orbit, and is used by communications, meteorological and surveillance satellites which must maintain a fixed position relative to the Earth.

Companies that won the contract to build the Chongqing satellite center say the city offers a range of strategic advantages, including labor and economics.

One such company, Commsat, says international competition for frequencies, as well as resources in low Earth orbit, are driving the development.

Data processing capacity is also currently limited in China, and for a global network, China would also need to deploy ground stations around the world.

The first details of this megaconstellation were published at the end of 2020, when the government asked the International Telecommunication Union for spectrum allocation – for two constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit.

These had been named “GW” and totaled 12,992 satellites, made up of sub-constellations orbiting 310 miles to 711 miles apart.

The plan would be for them to operate across a range of frequency bands, and potentially worldwide, providing service to different nations.

It has broad support at the highest levels of the Chinese government and comes with plans for a range of satellite and space industry clusters across China.

It’s part of a five-year plan, running until 2026, which 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 says should monitor marine disasters, the maritime environment and water conservation.

No details have been released on the capabilities of the satellites, launched in November to replace previous generation devices, but state media say they will also be used for road network design, land surveys and estimation of crop yield.

They have an unprecedented resolution, as sharp as 5 inches, which would put them on par with 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 worldwide.

As recently as December, China also approved the production of a broadband communications test satellite, built by Commsat as a test device.

It’s not just the Chinese government launching satellites into low Earth orbit, Beijing-based Galaxy Space plans to launch six communications satellites this year.

There seems to be competition between non-public operators in China, which could eventually evolve into the new national satellite project.

The State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) called for the orderly development of small satellites.

Details are vague on exactly what the network will cover or how it will operate, but the aim is to fill gaps in terrestrial communications and serve rural areas.  Image bank

Details are vague on exactly what the network will cover or how it will operate, but the aim is to fill gaps in terrestrial communications and serve rural areas. Image bank

It provides guidance for companies operating in this space, including frequencies to use, production, in-orbit safety and collision avoidance.

What’s unclear is whether the megaconstellation will be comprised of these small business launches, or run independently – further adding to the LEO population.

Apart from concerns about the true purpose of this global network of satellites, it also increases the risk of collisions in space, which 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 has contacted the UN in Vienna about approaches and risks 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 missions to Mars and Moon

Chinese space agency officials are striving to become a space superpower alongside the United States and Russia.

They’ve already sent the first lander to explore the far side of the moon – sharing photos of the part of our nearest neighbor we rarely see on 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 lunar soil samples in 45 years.

This was done in conjunction with the European Space Agency which provided tracking information for the Chinese spacecraft.

Chang’e-6 will be the first mission to explore the moon’s south pole and is expected to launch in 2023 or 2024.

Chang’e-7 will study the earth’s surface, composition and space environment as part of a comprehensive mission, according to China’s space authority, while Chang’e-8 will focus on surface engineering analysis.

China is also reportedly working on building a moon 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 works to verify technology for the project.

The CNSA is also building a space station in orbit around the Earth 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 reportedly working on a project to build a solar power generator in space, which would send energy back to Earth and become the largest man-made object in orbit.

They also have a number of ambitious space science projects, including satellites to search for signs of gravitational waves and Earth observation spacecraft to monitor climate change.

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