China’s recently launched SJ-12 satellite appears to have conducted a series of maneuvers over the summer to rendezvous with the older SJ-06F satellite in mid-August. The Chinese government isn’t saying anything about the event, leaving satellite analysts to puzzle it out using the Pentagon’s publicly released orbital data. Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force officer who now works for the Secure World Foundation think tank, published his analysis Aug. 30 at the Space Review website.
From what Weeden can tell, the two satellites made contact Aug. 16, altering SJ-06F’s orbit slightly. Any contact that did occur, he said, transpired at very slow speed and was unlikely to have significantly damaged either spacecraft or produced orbital debris.
“On-orbit rendezvous is a complex operation, and one that has only been done a few of times before, most notably by the US satellite XSS-11, which inspected the rocket body that placed it in LEO, and one of the US MiTEx satellites, which inspected the failed DSP-23 satellite in GEO. The rendezvous of two Chinese satellites demonstrates that China is broadening its space capabilities, but also touches on the greater issue of perceptions, trust, and safety in space activities that could impact the long-term sustainability of the space regime.”