November 10, 2010

China Makes Impressive Satellite Maneuver

Space analysts say that China has pulled off a tricky and uncommon feat in space flight, maneuvering one of its satellites to about 300 yards within another while they were orbiting Earth.

Some analysts say that this new feat could show China's ability to carry out a hostile act against a rival satellite in space.

China has not said why it conducted the August maneuver, but it comes as the nation is ambitiously expanding it space program.  The country's space program is expected to launch its first module of its space station next year, followed by a manned spacecraft to dock with it.

Space-watchers say that China maneuvered its SJ-12 satellite close to its SJ-06F satellite on August 19.

U.S. military officials confirmed the Chinese satellite rendezvous, but did not release many details because of security concerns.

Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation told the Associated Press (AP) that the rendezvous marks a milestone for China's space skills. 

He said that maneuvering an unmanned orbiting vehicle from a control room on Earth is extremely difficult due to the distance and data on the location of the vehicle could be off by hundreds of yards.

"It's not like driving a car," Weeden added.

Weeden told AP that only a few other countries have been able to pull off the maneuvers, including the U.S., Russia and Sweden.

Gregory Kulacki, who tracks developments in China for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the rendezvous was a "cutting edge skill" and that it's a significant achievement for China. 

"It shows they are keeping up with developments in international space technology," he told AP.

Kulacki said that any time ground controllers can maneuver a satellite into close proximity with another that cannot be maneuvered, then the exercise has "potential anti-satellite implications."

Weeden said that the SJ-12 satellite changed its course for the rendezvous.

Analysts believe that because there is no information from the Chinese, it is difficult to determine a reason for the maneuver.

However, Weeden said it was unlikely the rendezvous was an anti-satellite test because SJ-12 approached with the other satellite at a low relative speed.  He said that if the goal had been to destroy the other satellite, then SJ-12 would have closed in at a faster speed.


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