WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department is suggesting that the May 2013 launch of a Chinese rocket that it branded at the time as suspicious was a test of a technology designed to counter or destroy satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Image of the May 13, 2013 launch from Xichang taken from Hong Kong. Credit: Wah!
Image of the May 13, 2013 launch from Xichang taken from Hong Kong. Credit: Wah!

China characterized the launch as a scientific sounding rocket mission, but the U.S. Air Force said the vehicle’s trajectory was inconsistent with that explanation. In a statement released shortly after the launch, the service said the rocket climbed to a nearly geosynchronous-orbit altitude — 36,000 kilometers high — but that all objects associated with the launch subsequently re-entered the atmosphere.

In its latest annual report on Chinese military power, released May 8, the Pentagon doubled down on its initial assessment.

“The launch profile was not consistent with traditional space-launch vehicles, ballistic missiles or sounding rocket launches used for scientific research,” the report said. “It could, however, have been a test of technologies with a counterspace mission in geosynchronous orbit.”

Air Force and Defense Department officials have repeatedly warned over the past year about growing Chinese and Russian threats to satellite capabilities. In the case of China, these officials have primarily cited two events: China’s deliberate destruction in 2007 of one of its own low-orbiting satellites with a ground launched missile; and a “nondestructive” anti-satellite test in 2014.

In its latest “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” the Pentagon said the 2014 launch had a “similar profile” to the 2007 launch. Chinese officials described the 2014 event as a missile defense test.

The Pentagon had been largely mum about the 2013 launch between its initial assessment and the release of the new report on China’s military. But independent observers have been less restrained.

“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 [anti-satellite] weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile,” Brian Weeden, technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability, said in an analysis released in March 2014.

According to a 2013 press release from the Chinese Academy of the Sciences’ National Space Science Center, the sounding rocket was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center and carried payloads for studying the high-energy particles in the upper atmosphere and near-Earth space.

“The launch appeared to be on a ballistic trajectory nearly to geosynchronous Earth orbit,” Lt. Col. Monica Matoush, a Pentagon spokeswoman, wrote in an email to SpaceNews on May 16, 2013. “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. Based upon observations, we assess that the objects reentered the atmosphere above the Indian Ocean.”

The cat-and-mouse game in space between the United States and China was the subject of a recent segment on the popular CBS News program 60 Minutes. The segment included the following exchange between CBS News’ David Martin and Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command:

Martin: These follow on Chinese tests, how high up do they go?

Hyten: Pretty high. [smiles]

Martin: Well, how high’s that?

Hyten: I won’t characterize what– what the Chinese capabilities are. I just will tell you that we know what they are.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.