Australia keeping an eye on secret Chinese space plane

There’s a deadly war-game unfolding above our heads right now with China and the US almost simultaneously launching space planes which can interfere with low orbit satellites.

And one Australian company which is monitoring the space plane otbits in real time says their potential can be devastating.

A high-stakes 3d chess game is already underway. The pawns – small satellites – are in place. But now all eyes are on two “knights” – Chinese and US space planes – as they begin to manoeuvre for advantage.

The United States Space Force launched its reusable Boeing X-37B space plane on December 29. It’s been boosted into “higher orbits”. And this, the type’s seventh flight, is one of its most secret yet.

China launched its reusable space plane –  the Shenlong (Divine Dragon) – a fortnight earlier. This is the type’s third flight. And it’s flying among Low Earth Orbit’s (LEO) far busier space lanes (LEO).

Both have attracted global attention, with military, commercial and amateur operations all watching for what happens next.

“There’s no hiding in space,” says managing director of LeoLabs Australia Terry van Haren. “It’s all observable to anyone who has the suitable sensors.”

LeoLabs activated its new radar system in Western Australia early last year. It’s now part of a 10-radar global network tracking the trajectories of satellites and debris so commercial operators can safely navigate the increasingly congested orbits.

“We can see what’s happening in Low Earth Orbit because that’s where radar is dominant,” he explains. “But activity in higher orbits can be tracked with specialised optical telescopes. ExoAnalytics, a US commercial company, has 400 of these deployed worldwide, with 11 sites in Australia.”

That usually puts the antics of the Boeing X-37B outside LeoLabs’ reach, until it enters a highly elliptical orbit that passes through LEO.

“Our radars are here to catch the big picture,” van Haren says. “Obviously, we’re not just tracking the space planes, but also everything else in LEO that flies over this area. It’s very high volume, low latency, precision tracking information”.

But the Shenlong is attracting attention because of the secrecy surrounding its missions and its potential for espionage and space combat.

“This year is going to be a very interesting year in space as it is on Earth,” says van Haren, a former Royal Australian Air Force fighter pilot and commander.

“Strategic competition is always there. As is commercial competition. But people forget how fragile this environment is, and what the consequences of collision look like. Things can get out of control very, very quickly. And it will end up producing a set of circumstances that is very degrading for space flight”.

That’s why the Shenlong is being watched closely since its launch on December 14.

Us space plane 1
US Space Command Picture of the X-37B preparing for launch: (Image: USSF)

“We did see a number of objects that were co-planar with the space plane –  that came from the same launch,” says van Haren. “The bigger objects were the discarded rocket body and space plane. But there were reports some of the smaller objects were transmitting. Some of those have since gone quiet. Others have had their orbits decay.

“But this is the kind of evidence we need to work out what these things are and establish a pattern of behaviour.”

In the month since the launch, the Shenlong has made only minor adjustments to its orbit – following in the footsteps of earlier test flights.

“We’re doing a lot of comparisons between these flights,” van Haren explains. “Is this an experimental mission? Or is it the first operational flight of a fully functioning system? We’re going to watch and see. We have to expect the unexpected.”

Near miss in space

As tensions over China’s borders with India, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia continue to rise, access to space will become an increasingly precious – and fragile – asset.

“Space warfare is like a chess game,” van Haren says. “You deploy your pawns – small satellites – first. You put them in strategically important positions. And you leave them there until they’re needed. That’s happening as we speak. And in all orbits.”

But the advent of space planes has raised the stakes.

“I would say a space plane is a knight, or bishop – or a castle,” he adds. “Something that can move across the whole board very quickly and potentially do a lot of damage.”

Van haren
Terry van Haren

Space planes provide a multi-role, multi-orbit capability. Multi-role because it can carry whatever payload fits in its mission bay. And multi-orbit because it can quickly shift to different orbits and close in on another spacecraft.

“You no longer have to be co-orbital (launched into the same orbit) to be a potential threat,” van Haren explains.

But the fallout of space combat – as with civilian and corporate carelessness – could be devastating.

“The fact is we’re talking about a global commons, a precious resource. It’s something that can never be divided between civil, commercial and military operations,” says van Haren. “If things all go pear-shaped due to safety problems or conflict, the simple fact is every human on Earth will be affected.

“You wouldn’t be able to rely on your space-based systems (GPS, internet banking, etc) being there every day. It can be taken away in a heartbeat.

“And we’re not talking about losing access for weeks, months or years – as with the temporary shipping crisis in the Gulf of Aden. We’re talking decades, potentially tens of decades, for the higher orbits. So our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, can be affected by the things going on today.”

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