HELSINKI — U.S. space tracking has detected a new object orbiting along with China’s recently launched Shijian-21 space debris mitigation technology satellite.
Shijian-21 was launched into geosynchronous transfer orbit Oct. 23 by a Long March 3B rocket. Chinese state media reported that the satellite would “test and verify space debris mitigation technologies,” but no further details have been revealed.
The Shijian-21 spacecraft was developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST). SAST in September unveiled a “supplemental service spacecraft” concept at the Zhuhai Airshow.
On Nov. 1* U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron (SPCS) cataloged a new object alongside Shijian-21 with the international designator 2021-094C. The object is noted as a rocket body and more precisely an apogee kick motor (AKM), used in some launches for a satellite to circularize and lower the inclination of its transfer orbit and enter geostationary orbit.
Apogee kick motors usually perform a final maneuver after satellite separation so as to not pose a threat to active satellites through risk of collision. However both Shijian-21 and the SJ-21 AKM are side by side in geostationary orbit.
It is currently unknown whether the object is an AKM, an object possibly related to space debris mitigation tests, or part of potential counterspace operations tests. The object could be used to test rendezvous and proximity operations, refueling experiments or manipulation using a robotic arm or other means.
Given the lack of transparency the activities of Shijian-21 and its companion are likely to be closely tracked and scrutinized. It also follows complex maneuvers carried out in geostationary orbit by other Chinese test satellites in recent years.
China’s TJS-3 (Tongxin Jishu Shiyan-3) satellite launched in 2018 released a payload of unstated purposes. The pair maneuvered in concert and carried operations including spoofing, which involves coordinated maneuvers at certain times in an attempt to confuse rivals’ space tracking networks.
The activities take place in a context of growing tests of counterspace and clandestine activities in geostationary orbit by China, the U.S. and Russia. An Oct. 28 article published by Breaking Defense highlights some of these activities using videos from commercial space situational awareness company COMSPOC.
These include USA 271, a space surveillance satellite,which approached China’s large Shijian-20 satellite and Russia’s Luch/Olymp approaching to within 1.8 kilometers of a U.S. commercial satellite.
Against this backdrop Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, U.S. Space Force deputy chief of space operations for operations, cyber and nuclear, suggested Nov. 3 that hotlines could be established with foreign rivals to reduce the risk of an accident or miscalculation triggering conflict, as have been set up previously in other domains and crises.
“I don’t see any reason why a similar approach couldn’t work for the space domain,” Saltzman said.
The nature of the Shijian-21 and the companion “AKM” will likely become more apparent over time, such as if and when the spacecraft maneuver and the nature of any changes of orbits and if these are coordinated. A maneuver by the SJ-21 AKM would indicate an active rather than passive object.
SAST and its parent CASC may also reveal more information if the mission successfully carries out civilian purpose tests such as refueling.
Geostationary satellite servicing is seen as a growing market. Space Logistics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, has launched two Mission Extension Vehicles and has released footage of rendezvous with target satellites, while a number of other agencies and companies globally are developing spacecraft and missions.
* Edited Nov. 8 to update information relating to the timing of the separation of “SJ-21 AKM” from the Shijian-21 satellite. Article previously stated that the object was cataloged Nov. 3.