Data Point to Chinese Orbital Rendezvous

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A recently launched Chinese satellite made a series of deliberate orbital maneuvers this summer to approach an older Chinese satellite, and there is evidence that they may in fact have made physical contact, according to an analysis by the Secure World Foundation, a think tank based in Superior, Colo.

The possible rendezvous of the two Chinese satellites was first reported by Russian space observer Igor Lissov, who was quoted by the Russian news service Interfax-AVN on Aug. 19. These types of orbital proximity operations demonstrate the Chinese have developed a highly sophisticated capability, according to Brian Weeden, a Secure World Foundation technical adviser and former Air Force officer who tracked satellites for U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center. Weeden’s analysis was published Aug. 30 on the website www.thespacereview.com.

The two low Earth-orbiting satellites involved in the event were the SJ-06F satellite China launched in 2008, and the SJ-12 satellite launched in mid-June. Based on the U.S. military’s public satellite positional data, SJ-12 slowly approached the SJ-06F craft during a series of six maneuvers between June 12 and Aug. 16. Two days after the final maneuver, the orbit of the SJ-06F appears to have changed slightly, indicating it may have been nudged by the other satellite, Weeden said.

There are a number of possible reasons to develop such an on-orbit rendezvous capability, he said, including preparing to build a space station, inspecting or servicing satellites, and flying satellites in formations. Weeden said the demonstration does not fit the profile of an anti-satellite weapon development because of the slow speed, perhaps only several meters per second, that the SJ-12 craft was advancing toward the SJ-06F.

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steve Curry, a spokesman for U.S. Strategic Command, was not able to comment on the Chinese demonstration by press time.

The on-orbit demonstration  coincided with the release of an annual Pentagon report to Congress on the status of Chinese military capabilities. The Aug. 16 report, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010,” says China is improving its space capabilities in many mission areas and developing the capability to attack adversaries’ space assets.