New research suggests that China's May 2013 launch of a space rocket was in reality an assessment of a new anti-satellite capability, Reuters reports.
At the time of the launch, Beijing described it as a scientific research effort. However, no objects were placed in orbit and anonymous U.S. officials were quick to point out the rocket could be equipped with an antisatellite payload in the future.
Ex-U.S. Air Force space researcher Brian Weeden analyzed satellite photographs of the 2013 launch and concluded that China was likely conducting a trial of a kinetic interceptor, carried by a rocket capable of reaching an orbit 22,500 miles above the ground.
"If true, this would represent a significant development in China's antisatellite [ASAT] capabilities," wrote Weeden in a 47-page paper posted to the Space Review on Monday. "No other country has tested a direct ascent ASAT weapon system that has the potential to reach deep space satellites in medium earth orbit, highly elliptical orbit or geostationary orbit."
China previously carried out antisatellite tests in 2007 and 2010. Its tests have worried the United States and others that Beijing might seek to destroy the satellites of other countries. However, China has been a longstanding backer of calls to negotiate a treaty banning space weapons. Antisatellite tests also have missile-defense applications, as the technology needed to intercept a satellite additionally could be used against incoming ballistic weapons.
Weeden said there now exist "substantial" signs that Beijing was working on a second antisatellite weapon, beyond the SC-19 weapon about which U.S. agencies have already reported, according to Reuters.
Now a technical adviser to the nonprofit Secure World Foundation, Weeden called on Washington to share whatever information it has collected on China's antisatellite capabilities.
"Remaining silent risks sending the message to China and other countries that developing and testing hit-to-kill ASAT capabilities is considered responsible behavior as long as it does not create long-lived orbital debris," he said.
The analyst postulated that U.S. officials have been reticent to publicly criticize China's antisatellite activities out of fear that doing so would draw negative international attention to their own Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which uses kinetic technology to destroy incoming ballistic missiles. That same technology, he said, theoretically could be used to target foreign nations' satellites.