The Chinese military must be able to destroy SpaceX’s Starlink satellites if they pose a threat to national security, according to an April publication by Chinese military researchers.
The researchers speculated that US military drones and stealth fighter jets could boost their data transmission speed by more than 100x using the Starlink network. Notably, SpaceX has signed a contract with the US Department of Defense to develop technology based on the Starlink platform – which includes instruments sensitive enough to track hypersonic weapons traveling at 5x the speed of sound or faster.
The paper also recommends developing a satellite surveillance system with ‘unprecedented scale and sensitivity’ in order to track every Starlink satellite, according to the South China Morning Post.
The study was led by Ren Yuanzhen, a researcher with the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications under the PLA’s Strategic Support Force. Co-authors included several senior scientists in China’s defence industry. -SCMP
“A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functions and destroy the constellation’s operating system,” reads the paper, published in China’s peer-reviewed journal Modern Defence Technology.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is generally considered popular in China, however he received harsh criticism after two Starlink satellites came ‘dangerously close’ to the Chinese space station last year.
Musk notably provided over 12,000 Starlink dishes to Ukraine to help facilitate broadband internet amid the war with Russia – which SpaceX is providing free of charge.
“All critical infrastructure uses Starlink, all structures that are needed for the state’s functioning use them,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation. “We need to receive them constantly because they are one of the elements of the foundation of our fight and resilience.
Another concern from the Chinese researchers is that Starlink satellites all contain ion thrusters, which could allow them to rapidly change orbits for a rapid move against high-value targets in space.
On the public-facing side of things, Starlink’s popularity has continued to grow – experiencing a 275% increase since January.
The research paper also suggests that the unprecedented scale and flexibility of the Starlink system would allow the West to insert military payloads into SpaceX commercial launches – necessitating the development of new anti-satellite capabilities and a surveillance system that can obtain super-sharp images of small satellites in order to identify unusual features.
China claims it has already developed numerous ground-based laser imaging devices that can photograph orbiting satellites at a millimetre-resolution, but in addition to optical and radar imaging, the country also needs to be able to intercept signals from each Starlink satellite to detect any potential threat, according to Ren.
He said China had also showed its ability to destroy a satellite with a missile, but this method could produce a large amount of space debris, and the cost would be too high against a system consisting of many small, relatively low-cost satellites. -SCMP
“The Starlink constellation constitutes a decentralised system. The confrontation is not about individual satellites, but the whole system. This requires some low-cost, high-efficiency measures,” wrote the researchers.
SCMP notes that Chinese scientists have already developed lasers for blinding or damaging satellites, as well as cyber weapons that can attempt to hack into the satellite communication network.