China just boosted a high-tech, mysterious new satellite into orbit. It might be a weapon. It might not be a weapon. There’s no way to be certain, either way—and that’s a problem for all spacefaring countries.
Especially the United States and China. Washington and Beijing are lofting more and more of these ambiguous satellites into orbit without agreements governing their use. In failing to agree to the proverbial rules of the orbital road, the two governments risk ongoing suspicion, or worse—a misunderstanding possibly leading to war.
The Roaming Dragon satellite rode into space atop a Long March 7 rocket that blasted off from Hainan in southern China on June 25. Officially, Roaming Dragon is a space-junk collector. Its job, according to Beijing, is to pluck old spacecraft and other debris from Earth’s orbit and safely plunge them back to the planet’s surface.
For sure, orbital debris poses a real hazard to the world’s spacecraft. In the summer of 2015, astronauts aboard the International Space Station—including two Russians and an American—sought shelter inside an escape craft when a chunk of an old Russian satellite appeared to be on a collision course with the station.
Luckily, the debris missed the space station. All the same, NASA and other space agencies have voiced their concern over the accumulation of manmade junk in space—and have taken initial steps to remove the most dangerous chunks.
Hence Roaming Dragon’s official mission. “China, as a responsible big country, has committed to the control and reduction of space debris,” Tang Yagang, a scientist with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, wrote on the Chinese space agency’s website.
But the Roaming Dragon’s design—specifically, its maneuverability and its nimble, extendable robotic arm—mean it could also function as a weapon, zooming close to and dismantling satellites belonging to rival countries.
Stephen Chen, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post—which has historically has been critical of the Chinese central government in Beijing—quoted an unnamed “researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing” calling into question the satellite’s purported peaceful mission.
“It is unrealistic to remove all space debris with robots,” the anonymous researcher allegedly stated, implying that Roaming Dragon would, in reality, be doing something else up there in orbit.
But there’s no way to prove that Roaming Dragon is a weapon until it actually attacks another satellite. And at that point, the world would surely have much bigger problems than mere spacecraft taxonomy, as an orbital ambush would almost certainly be a prelude to a much more destructive conflict on the surface.
“Space robotic arms, like many other space technologies, have both military and non-military applications, and classifying them as a space weapon depends on the intent of the user, not on the inherent capabilities of the technology,” Kevin Pollpeter, deputy director of the Study of Innovation and Technology in China Project at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in a widely cited 2013 research paper.
“China’s space robotic arm technology is thus a case study in the challenges of defining ‘space weapon’ and the difficulty in achieving space arms control,” Pollpeter added.
It’s an old problem, by space standards. Jeffrey Lewis, a strategic-weapons expert who blogs at Arms Control Wonk, pointed out in an email to The Daily Beast that NASA’s space shuttle, which first launched into orbit in a dramatic test in 1981, inspired the same worry in Moscow that Roaming Dragon could inspire in Washington.
Specifically, Russian analysts questioned the purpose of the shuttle’s famous “Canadarm”—the Canadian-made “Shuttle Remote Manipulator System” that prominently appears in many photos of the now-retired shuttle’s cargo bay. American analysts are not wrong to point out the potential military applications of Roaming Dragon’s robotic arm. But “the Russians said the same thing about the Canadian arm on the space shuttle,” Lewis told The Daily Beast.
As far as we know, the space shuttle, which last flew in 2011, never attacked another spacecraft. Nor, apparently, have any of the many other spacecraft that possess arms and maneuverability similar to Roaming Dragon—the majority of which, it’s worth noting, are American.
The proliferation of these spacecraft underscores a failure on the part of the world’s governments to agree to orbital codes of conduct. “All the spacefaring countries are developing small satellites capable of conducting so-called autonomous proximity operations—and there are absolutely no rules about this,” Lewis explained.
“If China wants to build an inspector satellite to shadow one of our warning satellites, that’s just ducky as far as space law is concerned. In such an environment, even innocent programs will engender suspicion and initiate the basic arms race dynamics that threaten the use of space for everyone.”
That suspicion is already having a very real effect on the U.S. defense establishment. Growing ever more fearful of a possible ambush in space, in early 2015 Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work instructed John Hyten, the four-star general in charge of U.S. Air Force Space Command, to prepare his space operators and their satellites for a possible war in orbit.
But to a great extent, the paranoia is unjustified, according to Brian Weeden, a former Air Force space operator who is now a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation in Colorado. “A lot of the so-called space weapons technologies that have been hyped by pundits or the media for decades are not actually very good weapons,” Weeden told The Daily Beast in an email.
For starters, it’s hard for a killer satellite to sneak up on one of America’s own spacecraft, what with NASA and the Air Force constantly monitoring Earth’s orbit via radar and telescope. “We would notice it maneuvering to match orbits with the target hours [or] days in advance,” Weeden said.
For that reason, “there are better, faster, or cheaper ways to accomplish the same goal” of knocking out a satellite, Weeden added.
Ground-based rockets, for example. The same boosters that propel satellites into orbit can, if aimed carefully, strike and destroy spacecraft in certain orbits. China famously tested a so-called direct-ascent satellite-killing rocket in 2007, striking an old weather sat and scattering thousands of pieces of debris—ironically, the same kind of debris Roaming Dragon ostensibly was designed to help clean up.
“I still worry a lot more about China’s direct-ascent ASAT,” Lewis said, using a popular acronym for an anti-satellite weapon.
Contrary to the South China Morning Post’s reporting, it’s entirely possible that Roaming Dragon is what Beijing claims it is—an orbital trash-collector. “It’s not crazy to think about trying to pull large pieces of junk out of high-traffic orbits, since those are potential sources of thousands of pieces of deadly smaller debris if the piece breaks up,” Gregory Kulacki, a space expert with the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Daily Beast in an email.
And to China’s credit, it apparently has been fairly transparent about Roaming Dragon—more transparent, in fact, than the United States is with many of its own spacecraft. Weeden said Chinese officials could go a step further in reassuring the world about Roaming Dragon’s mission. “They could release details of its orbit and provide advance notification of any maneuvers. That would set a very good example for other countries testing similar capabilities to follow, including the United States.”
As long as there’s such a fine line between war and peace in space, bold acts of transparency are the only way to prevent suspicion and conflict. That applies to Roaming Dragon and any other satellite—be it Chinese, American, Russian, or other—that can transform from an instrument of science to a weapon of war with the flip of a few switches.
“We should probably try talking to each other about it,” Lewis advised.