Chinese defence boffins ponder microwaving Starlink satellites to stop surveillance
Beijing has filed the paperwork for its LEO constellation, but SpaceX is already there
Chinese defence boffins have suggested aggressive countermeasures against SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet service.
A paper in the February edition of Chinese journal Command and Control Simulation, titled "The impact of the 'Starlink' constellation on space situational awareness and countermeasures", was penned by researchers from the People's Liberation Army Space Engineering University in Beijing.
The thrust of the paper is simple: Starlink's already huge constellation of satellites means it has occupied plenty of orbital and spectrum resources without detailing the disposition of its fleet, and China needs to get its own satellites up there ASAP if it wants to enjoy the same strategic advantages the USA derives from having SpaceX based on its soil.
The paper also expresses a worry that Starlink satellites could have dual purposes – such as carrying reconnaissance systems for the US military – meaning China needs the ability to degrade their abilities.
The paper notes that destroying Starlink satellites would create so much debris that access to space, and operation of satellites, could become tricky.
The authors therefore ponder lasers and "high-power microwaves" as means to disable certain satellites.
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The other countermeasure the paper envisions is the swift launch of China's own low-Earth orbit broadband constellation, and its insertion into useful orbits.
As it happens, Beijing filed paperwork in 2021 with the International Telecommunications union for just such a constellation – outlining plans for a 13,000-strong fleet of sats. The paper suggests those birds should be slotted into orbits that Starlink doesn't already occupy – so that China can have dibs before SpaceX launches the other 30,000 or so satellites it's suggested Starlink will require.
The paper doesn't specify how China will get the job done. The Middle Kingdom's space program is achieving success with more complex missions like the construction of its space station, Mars missions, and journeys to the Moon, but China currently cannot match SpaceX's launch schedule. Seven missions took off for the American concern in February 2023 alone – four of them dedicated to launching Starlink satellites.
Nor can China re-use rockets, which is SpaceX's whole big thing.
With its focus on the SpaceX threat, the paper doesn't mention Amazon's plan for its own "Kuiper" constellation of over 3,000 satellites, or other similar plans. ®