China launches classified space debris mitigation technology satellite

HELSINKI – China launched the Shijian-21 satellite from Xichang late Saturday with the stated aim of testing space debris containment technologies.

A long march 3B picked up from Xichang Satellite Launch Center, Southwest China, at 9:27 p.m. Eastern, Oct. 23, and sends Shijian-21 into a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) Confirmed Successful start within an hour after the start. Chinese State Media Xinhua reported that Shijian-21 will test and verify “Space Debris Containment Technologies”.

No details about the satellite or its capabilities were disclosed. Coupled with the fact that space debris containment technologies are “dual-use” and have both civil and military applications, the satellite is likely to attract interest and attention outside of China.

There is a global commercial case for active debris removal and, in the case of geostationary orbit, for satellite repair and refueling or delivery to cemetery orbits.

The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology revealed a “Supplemental Service Spacecraft” at the Zhuhai Airshow at the end of September. After approximate two meters of a target, it could dock and refuel a compatible satellite. SpaceLogistics, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, has developed Mission expansion vehicleswhile DARPA, the European Space Agency, Astroscale of Japan and other refueling spacecraft are developing.

However, the secrecy and lack of transparency regarding the intentions and actors of the Shijian 21 mission could be cause for concern. The same rendezvous skills with a satellite for refueling and repair could also be used to deactivate enemy spaceships.

Shijian (“practice”) satellites are, by and large, technology demonstration satellites. Shijian-17, launched in 2016 by the first heavy lift rocket Long March 5, is an experimental satellite for communications and broadcast services. It also performed rendezvous and proximity operations in geostationary orbit.

The Secure World Foundation has tracked Rendezvous and proximity operations by Chinese and other space actors. It Remarks that Shijian-17 demonstrated maneuverability around the geostationary belt, circled Zhongxing-5A (ChinaSat-5A) and later approached Zhongxing-6B and Shijian-20, which was launched in December 2019.

The launch of Long March 3B on Saturday shows that the launcher wasn’t the cause of an issue that affected September 27th begin from Shiyan-10, another classified starship. The satellite appeared to be unresponsive to propulsion for more than two weeks a series of burns raised his perigee by hundreds of kilometers and indicated to the outside world that Shiyan-10 was active.

Shiyan-10 continues to change orbit and has raised its perigee to 1,100 kilometers, according to data from the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron (SPCS). The satellite is said to have targeted a geosynchronous orbit with a current apogee of 40,100 km. Neither CASC nor state media have provided an update on the state of health or the situation of the Shiyan-10 satellite.

The Long March 3B was slated to have a busy end through 2021 and appears poised to continue its role as the workhorse among China’s Long March missiles.

The launch marked CASC’s 36th launch this year and the 39th overall for China, including the launches of state spin-off Expace and private company iSpace. China’s next launch will set a national record for orbital launches in a calendar year, surpassing 39 in 2018 and hit in 2020.

CASC aims at more than 40 starts before the end of the year. Private company Galactic Energy is expected to make its second launch shortly, while Expace plans to drive a second Kuaizhou 1A record this year were hit due to a COVID-19 outbreak.