WASHINGTON — The May 2013 launch of a Chinese rocket on what Beijing described as a scientific mission may have been a test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) system, according to a new academic paper.

The idea is presented in a March 17 paper, “Through a Glass, Darkly: Chinese, American, and Russian Anti-satellite Testing in Space,” by Brian Weeden, technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability.

“While there is no conclusive proof, the available evidence strongly suggests that China’s May 2013 launch was the test of the rocket component of a new direct ascent ASAT weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile,” the paper says.

According to a press release from the Chinese Academy of the Sciences’ National Space Science Center, the rocket was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center on a suborbital mission to study the high-energy particles in the upper atmosphere and near-Earth space.

But the Pentagon seemed to question that characterization. “The launch appeared to be on a ballistic trajectory nearly to geosynchronous Earth orbit,” Air Force Lt. Col. Monica Matoush, a Pentagon spokeswoman, wrote in a May 16 email. “We tracked several objects during the flight but did not observe the insertion of any objects into orbit and no objects associated with this launch remain in space.”

In his analysis, Weeden pointed to a satellite image from DigitalGlobe that he said showed launch infrastructure used for road-mobile ballistic missiles at the Xichang launch pad just weeks prior to the May 2013 liftoff.

Weeden said no sounding rocket appeared in the image, and that coupled with the presence of launch infrastructure “on a newly-constructed mobile launch pad gives significant credence to the claims regarding the mobile nature of the Chinese direct ascent ASAT system,” he wrote.

Weeden urged the White House to release information about the test as a means of applying pressure on the Chinese government. “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 Pentagon declined to comment on Weeden’s report. “We don’t comment on our intelligence or assessments of foreign weapon systems,” Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, wrote in a March 21 email. “We encourage greater [Chinese] transparency regarding their defense investments and objectives to avoid miscalculation.”

In January 2007, China deliberately destroyed one of its defunct weather satellites known as Fengyun-1C using a ground-launched missile. The action, which was widely condemned internationally, left a cloud of potentially hazardous debris in a heavily used belt of Earth orbit.

In recent months, U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command; U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; and Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, have warned about growing threats to U.S. national security space assets.


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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...