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former IAEA Director-General

Report: China May Have New ASAT Weapon
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Timothy Farnsworth

A report by the Secure World Foundation has presented new evidence that a Chinese rocket launch last May was actually a test of a new anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon.

In a press release shortly after the event, the Chinese Academy of Sciences originally characterized it as a scientific launch originating from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in western China. A high-altitude sounding rocket carried a scientific payload 10,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface to study the magnetosphere, according to the press release.

Drawing on open-source materials and commercially available satellite images, the report by Brian Weeden, a technical adviser to the foundation, finds that the evidence, although not conclusive, appears to show that China is testing a rocket component of a new ASAT weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile that could reach geostationary orbit, about 36,000 kilometers above the earth. Weeden said in a March 27 e-mail to Arms Control Today that, from a U.S. military perspective, “the altitude has some very important implications because [the United States] has some very important national security space assets at those higher altitudes.” Some of these assets include satellites that provide early-warning launch notifications or communications for nuclear forces or help fly drones. Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force space analyst, said in his e-mail that the United States has considered these systems safe and probably could not defend them from deliberate attacks.

According to the report, no other country has tested a direct-ascent ASAT weapons system that could hit satellites higher than 2,000 kilometers. A direct-ascent weapon is launched from the earth’s surface with the goal of hitting a target in space, but the weapon itself does not remain in orbit.

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Monica Matoush told the Air Force Association on May 15, 2013, that “[t]he launch appeared to be on a ballistic trajectory nearly to geosynchronous Earth orbit.”

A ballistic trajectory typically means that a rocket is on a suborbital flight path and neither it nor its payload stays in orbit. Rockets that are used for space launches follow a different trajectory in order to keep the payload in orbit after flight.

According to the report, data suggest that the apogee of the rocket—the point at which it was farthest from the earth—was higher than the 10,000 kilometers that China claimed.

In the report, Weeden said that satellite images of the Xichang launch site approximately a month before the launch point toward a new weapons system because sounding rockets, typically used for scientific tests and research of the upper atmosphere, generally are launched from fixed structures on launch pads. None of the satellite images show a “viable sounding rocket” on any of the pads, the report says. That fact, in combination with other information, further puts the Chinese claims in question, the reports says.

The report notes that none of China’s current ballistic missiles could reach the altitude of the May 2013 test, leading Weeden to speculate the test could be China’s new Kuaizhou solid-fueled rocket space-launch vehicle. The Kuaizhou rocket was launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in September 2013, and amateur imagery of that launch shows it to be based on a mobile launch platform, Weeden said in his e-mail.

The State Department and the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency did not respond to inquiries by Arms Control Today regarding details of Weeden’s report.

Posted: April 1, 2014