Corrected November 2, 2021 at 4:10 PM ET. The original version of this story contained the incorrect date for the USA 271 incident. The incident happened in August 2020.
WASHINGTON: China has demonstrated its ability to track and maneuver a satellite with a remarkably high degree of precision, allowing the Chinese military to see a U.S. satellite getting close and then its own satellite in just over 24 hours from the U.S. bird away, according to never-before-seen video recreations.
In an August 2020 incident, USA 271, a space surveillance satellite secretly developed by the Air Force and Orbital Sciences, is approaching China’s SJ-20 satellite, the PRC’s heaviest and one of the most advanced satellites. The US satellite, part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSAPP), tracks the Chinese bird in parallel. But then the Chinese clearly detect the US satellite and quickly move theirs away from them. (Pro Tip: If you look closely, you can see how close the two satellites are by looking under “Range” in the video below.)
This is a rare glimpse into the often highly classified domain of country-to-country run-ins in space — and possible future space warfare tactics — powered by COMSPOC, a company that provides space tracking and other intelligence to private companies and governments. As the US military tracks objects in space, it restricts data on those with implications for national security — particularly US spy satellites. COMSPOC has provided several videos for this report illustrating different interactions with Breaking Defense.
“They start with calibration maneuvers and they are very, very small maneuvers, so it’s difficult. It’s about having the right system that can process and detect small maneuvers when you’re so close,” said Jim Cooper, head of situational awareness in space at COMSPOC.
In another example involving only Chinese spacecraft, the PLA launched and deployed in 2018 that the US suspects is a counterspace satellite known as the TJS 3 (Tongxin Jishu Shiyan). According to the COMSPOC data, the TJS 3 took up position in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), parallel to its apogee kick motor (the missile’s upper stage).
“You see, all of a sudden they’re… both there, maneuvered to change their orbits, and they did that at the exact same time, and then in the exact same way,” Cooper explained of the May 2019 incident. “So those maneuvers were basically done in tandem with each other. And you can see the apogee kick engine — which is basically a rocket body — now flying where the TJS 3 counter space platform used to be,” he said.
Why did a remnant of a rocket from the top stage in GEO suddenly fire thrusters and start moving parallel to the satellite it helped push into orbit?
“What we think is happening here is the development and experimentation and validation of what we call a tactic, technique and procedure, a TTP, to spoof an enemy’s network for SSA. [space situational awareness]’, says Cooper.
The maneuver took place just like the day-night terminator passed by means of. “So we think they timed this so that if an optical telescope looked up there and saw that maneuver, they wouldn’t catch it,” he said.
A country keeping an eye on the Chinese bird would now see this spent rocket body (the kick motor) sitting where the payload was and mistake the kick motor for the satellite. Immediately afterwards, the TGS 3 leaves the area – a very big maneuver. That, Cooper says, could give China a few days of freedom, during which they could “do things that are potentially threatening” while the other country doesn’t remember where. the Chinese satellite.
China is certainly not the only one capable of moving and controlling its satellites. Russia and the United States have both demonstrated this ability several times. Of course, as experienced space viewers know, there could be multiple uses for a satellite that can move with precision.
“There are good things happening in space these days, such as in-orbit maintenance, refueling, end-of-life disposal; all those types of operations require satellites to get very close together and in some cases have to dock together,” Cooper said. “But […] you can also intentionally do nefarious or threatening things with the same kind of technology. What is the real purpose of looking at this?”
Cooper said intent is “definitely” something Space Force and Space Command are concerned about.
“With that idea of space domain consciousness comes understanding of the intent of the activities they see,” he said.
The video above recounts the time in November 2019 when a Russian Luch/Olymp satellite approaches within 1.1 miles of a US commercial satellite, Intelsat 36, serving sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
“If they’re going to do something like this approach this close to another satellite, it could probably be considered irresponsible behavior,” Cooper said. “Even if they have the precise SSA to define that Intelsat 36 job, you don’t know what Intelsat 36 is going to do next.”
For example, Intelsat can plan a maneuver. If that happens, Cooper noted, “it could very well end in a disastrous collision because they’re so close together and neither of them knew what the other satellite was doing.”
Intelsat has seen this kind of behavior before, in 2015, when a Luch satellite positioned itself between two Intelsat satellites for five months. Space News reported at the time that this led to secret meetings between US government officials.
And that Russian satellite didn’t do itpass Intelsat 36, as the video below showing a year of satellite progress makes clear, it shot up by more than two dozen satellites, often pausing near them.
In 2018, French Defense Minister Florence Parly claimed that in the year before a Luch/Olymp spacecraft approached the Athena-Fidus satellite, a Franco-Italian satellite launched in 2014 used for secure military communications and the planning operations, according to The Associated Press. “Trying to listen to your neighbor isn’t just unkind. It’s called an act of espionage,” Parly said at the time. Of course, a big part of what happens in space is espionage, and Espionage is not illegal.
But what does this behavior say about Russia’s capabilities?
“First, they have the very, very accurate situational awareness of space on that Intel satellite to know specifically where it is,” Cooper said. “But what they do, at least as far as we can infer, is get close enough to these other satellites, and you see, time-wise, they stay close to these other satellites for weeks or months at a time. And what they’re probably doing is getting that in [satellite’s] uplink from the ground and collect information from it [operator’s] uplink to that satellite.”
Cooper said the Russian satellite’s actions amounted to “clearly provocative behavior”.
“It’s obviously concerning from a technology perspective in terms of commercial space, and if you’re the DoD, you want to pay attention to this kind of thing,” he said. “But obviously one country can do stuff with one of its satellites around another of its satellites and who’s to say they can’t do that, right?”
China has so far only done Rendezvous Proximity Operations (RPO) with their own satellites, said Brian Weeden, a top military space expert at the Secure World Foundation. “To my knowledge, China has never done an RPO with another country’s satellite,” he said.
The US hadn’t released public data on RPOs conducted by US satellites until late 2019, when it started releasing some data, he said.
“Apparently they have [DoD] have had multiple reviews about improving sharing. They are starting to provide more preliminary information about some of these classified objects, but not all and not always,” Weeden said.
Now, none of this is a violation of international law. But these very close approaches, shadow operations, spoofing and other actions increase the risk of collisions.
“All of this shows why the US, Russia and China urgently need to talk about standards when it comes to close approaches and military activities in the GEO region,” Weeden said.
He cited the 1972 Agreement on Incidents at Sea between the Soviet Union and the US as a good example. “We need a space incident agreement.”
One of the main reasons for such an agreement would be to mitigate the burgeoning problem of space debris. The Department of Defense is currently tracking more than 27,000 objects in space, most of which are debris — such as defunct rocket bodies, according to NASA.