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China calls for developing anti-satellite capabilities to counter Starlink

Chinese military researchers say the country needs to be able to disable or destroy SpaceX’s Starlink satellites if they threaten national security.

According to a paper published last month, China needs to develop anti-satellite capabilities, including a surveillance system with unprecedented scale and sensitivity to track and monitor every Starlink satellite.

The study was led by Ren Yuanzhen, a researcher with the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications under the PLA’s Strategic Support Force. Coauthors included several senior scientists in China’s defence industry.

Ren and his colleagues could not immediately be reached for comment and it is uncertain to what extent their view represents an official stance of the Chinese military or government.

“A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functions and destroy the constellation’s operating system,” said the paper, published in domestic peer-reviewed journal Modern Defence Technology.

Starlink is the most ambitious satellite communication project ever, providing broadband internet services to commercial and military users around the globe.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has enjoyed huge popularity in China as a role model for innovation. But criticism of Musk and his companies increased significantly after two Starlink satellites approached dangerously close to the Chinese space station last year.

Ren estimated that US military drones and stealth fighter jets could increase their data transmission speed by more than 100 times with a Starlink connection.

SpaceX has signed a contract with the US Defence Department to develop new technology based on the Starlink platform, including sensitive instruments able to detect and track hypersonic weapons travelling at five times the speed of sound, or even faster in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Starlink satellites are also equipped with ion thrusters that allow them to change orbits rapidly for an offensive move against high value targets in space, according to Ren’s team.

With more than 2,300 satellites — and counting — in orbit, Starlink is generally believed to be indestructible because the system can maintain proper functioning after losing some satellites.

The unprecedented scale, complexity and flexibility of Starlink would force the Chinese military to develop new anti-satellite capabilities, according to Ren and his colleagues. For instance, it would be possible for satellites carrying military payloads to be launched amid a batch of Starlink’s commercial craft, they suggested.

The Chinese military therefore needed to upgrade its existing space surveillance systems to obtain super-sharp images of these small satellites for experts to identify unusual features, they said.

China claims it has already developed numerous ground-based laser imaging devices that can photograph orbiting satellites at a millimetre-resolution, but in addition to optical and radar imaging, the country also needs to be able to intercept signals from each Starlink satellite to detect any potential threat, according to Ren.

He said China had also showed its ability to destroy a satellite with a missile, but this method could produce a large amount of space debris, and the cost would be too high against a system consisting of many small, relatively low-cost satellites.

“The Starlink constellation constitutes a decentralised system. The confrontation is not about individual satellites, but the whole system. This requires some low-cost, high-efficiency measures,” said the researchers without elaborating on the methods of attack.

According to openly available information, China has been developing numerous alternative anti-satellite technologies, including microwaves that can jam communications or burn electronic components.

Chinese scientists have also developed lasers for blinding or damaging satellites, nano-sats that can be launched in huge numbers to cripple bigger satellites, and cyber weapons to hack into the satellite communication network.

A Beijing-based space scientist who asked not to be named because of the issue’s sensitivity, said the paper could be the first open call for an attack on Starlink from China.

It was not entirely a surprise, considering the growing tension between China and the United States, he said. “But the mainstream opinion, as far as I know, is that our countermeasures should be constructive. That means building our own internet satellite networks.”

China has launched a similar project known as Xing Wang — StarNet — to provide internet access on a global scale.

The StarNet system will have only a few hundred satellites, but will achieve high performance by connecting with other Chinese satellites to form a high-speed, powerful and resilient information infrastructure with cutting-edge technology such as laser communication and AI, according to Chinese space authorities. South China Morning Post

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