Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
This seems to be the attitude of researchers in China, who're working on ways of disabling and potentially eliminating SpaceX's Starlink satellites — in the not-wholly-farfetched scenario where they might represent a threat to the country's national security, according to an initial report from the South China Morning Post.
While unconfirmed, scientists associated with China's defense industry explained their position on anti-satellite defense in a recent paper published in the journal Modern Defense Technology.
But China may need new weapons to confront SpaceX's Starlink constellation.
China says Starlink satellites can amplify US military capabilities
The paper argues that China should develop anti-satellite capabilities — the first steps of which would call for a massive surveillance system that can track and monitor every one of Musk's satellites. Ren Yuanzhen is the lead study researcher, and he works at Beijing's Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications, which is under the People Liberation Army's (PLA's) Strategic Support Force.
"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," read the recent paper. If this goes forward, it's the first idea into practice about tracking such a large constellation — potentially, to destroy them.
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Meanwhile, SpaceX's Elon Musk has seen a surge in popularity in China — despite growing criticism after two Starlink satellites swooped precariously close to China's space station in 2021. Yuanzhen thinks Starlink satellites could offer more than 100 times their data transmission speed to U.S. stealth fighter jets and military drones.
In the event of open war, those could become a critical asset — one that China might not like.
China wants to monitor Starlink launches for military devices
And SpaceX has already signed a contract with the U.S. Defense Department to build novel technology designed for Starlink satellites to equip — like instruments capable of tracking hypersonic weapons in real-time. In case you missed it, those things move unspeakably fast, at five times the speed of sound — and at even higher velocities while inside of Earth's atmosphere.
But Yuanzhen noted how Starlink satellites feature ion thrusters, which enables them to execute a rapid change in orbit — in case they are targeted. And, since there are more than 2,300 in orbit right now, consensus is the Starlink satellites are invulnerable to attacks, because the constellation can function even with many individual satellites lost.
One strategy for China is to upgrade its existing space surveillance technology, so it can nab high-resolution images of Starlink batch launches, to see if any military payloads were snuck in a SpaceX launch. The country also claims it has ground-based laser-imaging devices capable of doing this (to a millimeter resolution). China also wants to have optical and radar imaging, but needs to monitor signals from discrete Starlink satellites to confirm potential military threats, added Yuanzhen.
SpaceX's Starlink could function despite great losses
The problem with any anti-satellite defense is the output of its execution: a gigantic volume of space debris, which threatened the International Space Station last year when Russia launched an anti-satellite missile. Consequently, China would need a way to take down Elon Musk's entire satellite system, wholesale. "The Starlink constellation constitutes a decentralized system," said the researchers in the report.
"The confrontation is not about individual satellites, but the whole system." Thus, China needs anti-satellite weapons that break with convention — like microwaves capable of burning or at least jamming communications and electronic parts. As tensions between the U.S. and China continue, it's sad to see space increasingly viewed by both powers as an extension of military power by other means. But in some ways, it feels inevitable.