In late September, China's third manned space mission went off without a hitch.
The Shenzhou-7 is now safely in orbit. Close by is the BX-1 "companion
satellite" which was attached to Shenzhou-7 and later deployed via a simple
spring mechanism. This satellite weighs between 30 and 40 kilograms, and it
simply orbits around Shenzhou-7, sending back over a thousand images of
Shenzhou-7 in the process.
While Western space experts may be divided over the exact purpose of the BX-1
mission, it is clear that China has every intention of driving its dynamic
"dual use" space agenda as far as it will go. BX-1 could well be little more
than a peaceful probe merely engaged in "close proximity" operations with
transmission equipment aboard. Or it could be a prototype satellite attack dog,
a space surveillance and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) platform with
anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, all rolled into a single menacing platform
ready to pounce.
The ASAT dimension seems
extremely far-fetched, and many experts dispel
talk of it. Nevertheless, this potential ASAT
surfaced quickly as the result of a
close flyby involving Shenzhou-7, with BX-1 in tow, and the International Space
Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington DC-based International
Assessment and Strategy Center, and the author of a new book, China's Military
Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach, is not surprised
that there has been no official US statement or response to this puzzling
"We do not know how close the BX-1 actually approached the ISS. But for me, at
closure speeds of 3.1km/second, the Shenzhou-7 was already too close at 45
kilometers. I expect that in time leaks or questions from the Congress will
lead to revelations of more data about the BX-1 pass-by of the ISS," says
China has tried to portray the presence of BX-1 as peaceful and otherwise
harmless, but especially since Beijing's decision to initiate ASAT operations
by shooting down one of its weather satellites, this stance has not been
readily accepted by many who are convinced that everything China is doing in
space is part of a broader strategic plan with firm military objectives in
The fact that the Chinese have multiple missions underway is one thing, but the
sudden arrival of BX-1 on the scene - let alone the ISS incident - may signal
that the US and the Europeans may not enjoy as a big a lead over China in space
as once thought.
Not only does China's BX-1 shine a spotlight on the enormous investment in US
and European space assets - making them look very vulnerable indeed - but it
also raises questions about one upcoming US satellite experiment in particular
known as the Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space
(ANGELS). To assert that BX-1, with its emphasis on operations at close
proximity, means that China was deliberately attempting to shadow and target
the ISS and that China has now achieved or attained a breakthrough in space
surveillance or SSA is not a wise idea. Still, the BX-1 is a game changer, and
the ISS case file remains open.
In an interview in 2005, Theresa Hitchens, director of the Washington DC-based
Center for Defense Information and head of its Space Security Project, stated
that the US Air Force (USAF) "urgently needed" better space surveillance
capabilities and that the USAF would be "apoplectic" if the Chinese were
suddenly deemed capable of engaging in this critical space activity.  Three
years later, Hitchens does not go so far as to credit China for making some
sort of quantum leap in this instance, but she is openly critical of the USAF's
lack of progress in SSA in particular.
"Sadly, I can't identify any achievements in SSA, because there haven't been
any. If anything, there's been a step backward in that the Midcourse Space
Experiment, the only space-based sensor for SSA which was used to track things
in geostationary orbit, was shut down in June [because] it was very old and had
started to give erratic data," says Hitchens. "And now we have no space-based
Over the years, the US has launched hordes of small experimental satellites
including the "Orbital Express" which demonstrated that autonomous on-orbit
repair and refueling operations were feasible, the Near Field Infrared
Experiment or NFIRE, the XSS-11, and the Tacsat series. And in 2010, the US
will launch the ANGELS, which has been redesigned and grown considerably to a
point where now it is roughly twice the weight of BX-1.
While all of these experiments are noteworthy, Hitchens points out that the
USAF Space Based Surveillance System (SBSS) is well behind schedule. The first
SBSS satellite is expected to launch early next year, while a planned upgrade
to the "Space Fence" has been delayed until at least 2015. In fact, Hitchens
openly questions whether or not USAF will start putting its money where its
mouth is regarding the importance of SSA.
"Over the last two years, they have been talking a big game regarding improving
SSA, but precious little has actually come of the talk," says Hitchens. "The US
Congress added money to the SSA budget this year, and another $22 million for
much needed upgrades to the Maui Telescope. But it wasn't the USAF asking for
Fisher points to China's growing fleet of earth observation and surveillance
satellites as evidence of China's ability to assert itself aggressively in
space. China now operates multiple surveillance satellites including CBERS
electro-optical satellites developed with Brazil as well as YaoGan and
HuangJing electro-optical and advanced radar satellites, according to Fisher.
"The latest Pentagon report says there will eventually be 11 of these, but
previous reports out of China had mentioned a total constellation of 8," says
Fisher. "By the middle of the next decade the PLA will have a robust
surveillance satellite network that will allow a many-times daily target
tasking on a global level. It will also have the ability to perform
'information operations' by being able to give a range of clients updates on
global US military activities multiple times a day."
Fisher has a very good reason for following all of China's space developments
so closely besides the fact that because "so much of our military superiority
on Earth depends on robust and superior capabilities in space, an adequate
effort must now be undertaken to ensure that all of our space assets are
"As long as their space program is designed mainly to build the regional and
global capabilities of a PLA [People's Liberation Army] that serves a Communist
Party dictatorship, all emerging PLA capabilities in space are a concern," says
Fisher. "Were China as much a democracy as Taiwan, South Korea or Japan, I
expect that we would be vigorous partners and competitors with China in space,
just as we are with the Europeans and the Russians."
Given China's determination - and ability - to become a heavyweight space
contender, Hitchens views ANGELS with increasing skepticism.
"Well, ANGELS isn't up yet. Yes, if it works it would be an improvement I
guess, although I still am a little iffy on the program. If you are simply
looking at space close in to a satellite, you might see something incoming, but
you won't have time to do anything about it," says Hitchens.
She labels ANGELS as serving an important diagnostic role. That is, seeing if a
satellite has been hit by debris, or if its solar panel has been damaged, "but
it isn't going to do all that much for actual space surveillance".
"This is why some of us are a little concerned about its true intent. You also
have to ask yourself how they are going to deploy this if they do. Will every
satellite be surrounded by a couple of ANGELS? And how much would that cost? Or
would they be designed to be 'pop up' although nothing in space, given launch
and pad availability, is really 'pop up' at this point," she says. "Anyway,
ANGELS is still to be proven so how you count it is a question mark."