Researchers say China plans to build a huge satellite network in near-Earth orbit to provide internet services to users around the world – and to stifle Elon Musk’s Starlink.
The project has the code name “GW”, according to a team led by associate professor Xu Can with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Space Engineering University in Beijing. But what these letters stand for is unclear.
The GW constellation will include 12,992 satellites owned by the newly established China Satellite Network Group Co, Xu and his colleagues said in a paper about anti-Starlink measures published in the Chinese journal Command Control and Simulation on February 15.
The launch schedule for these satellites remains unknown, but the number would rival the scale of SpaceX’s planned network of more than 12,000 satellites by 2027.
Xu’s team said the GW satellite constellation was likely to be deployed quickly, “before the completion of Starlink”. This would “ensure that our country has a place in low orbit and prevent the Starlink constellation from excessively pre-empting low-orbit resources”, they wrote.
The Chinese satellites could also be placed in “orbits where the Starlink constellation has not yet reached”, the researchers said, adding that they would “gain opportunities and advantages at other orbital altitudes, and even suppress Starlink”.
The Chinese satellites could be equipped with an anti-Starlink payload to carry out various missions, such as conducting “close-range, long-term surveillance of Starlink satellites”, they said.
The Starlink network, now with over 3,000 satellites in orbit, is expected to eventually grow to more than 40,000 satellites, according to SpaceX.
China’s space surveillance and defence capacity cannot cope with so many satellites, Xu’s team said.
The Starlink satellites can receive data from the US Department of Defence to plan or coordinate their positions, and they are equipped with surveillance sensors to monitor the space environment, according to the paper.
“The Starlink satellites may use their orbital manoeuvrability to actively hit and destroy nearby targets in space,” the researchers said.
China plans to build more powerful radar systems powered by new technology to identify and track Starlink satellites, they said.
According to the researchers, the radar and other detection measures would be used to update a “Starlink catalogue” that would eventually contain detailed data on every satellite.
Xu’s team said the Chinese government could also cooperate with other governments to form an anti-Starlink coalition and “demand that SpaceX publish the precise orbiting data of Starlink satellites”.
They added that new weapons, including lasers and high-power microwaves, would be developed and used to destroy Starlink satellites that pass over China or other sensitive regions.
The Ukrainian military has used Starlink services effectively against Russian forces. Since the war broke out, Chinese military researchers have repeatedly called for developing capabilities to destroy Starlink if necessary.
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On February 13, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted that the company would restrict the military use of Starlink in the Ukraine war because “we will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on February 18 that the US government had talked to Musk about the use of Starlink satellite internet in Ukraine, but did not elaborate. [SCMP]
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