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Raumfahrt - US, China, Russia Test New Space War Tactics: Sats Buzzing, Spoofing, Spying

30.10.2021

Models shared exclusively with Breaking Defense offer a rare glimpse into nation-on-nation run-ins in space as satellites follow, flee, and, allegedly, listen in on each other.

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A screengrab of an encounter of an American and a Chinese satellite in space. (COMSPOC)

WASHINGTON: China has demonstrated the ability to track and maneuver a satellite with a remarkably high degree of precision, allowing the Chinese military to spot a US satellite moving close and then to redirect its own satellite away from the US bird in little more than 24 hours, according to never-before-seen video recreations.

In a July 2021 incident, USA 271, a space surveillance satellite developed covertly by the Air Force and Orbital Sciences, approaches Chinese satellite SJ-20, the PRC’s heaviest and one of its most advanced satellites. The US satellite, part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSAPP), shadows the Chinese bird in parallel. But then the Chinese clearly detect the US satellite and rapidly move theirs away. (Pro tip: If you look closely, you can see how close the two satellites are by looking under “Ranges” in the video below.)

This is a rare glimpse into the often highly classified realm of nation-to-nation run-ins in space — and potential future space warfare tactics — made possible by COMSPOC, a company that provides space tracking and other information to private companies and governments. While the US military tracks objects in space, it restricts data about those with national security implications — especially US spy sats. COMSPOC provided several videos illustrating various interactions to Breaking Defense for this report.

“They start doing calibration maneuvers and they’re very, very small maneuvers, so it’s hard. It’s about having the right system that can process and detect those small maneuvers when you’re that close,” said Jim Cooper, lead for space situational awareness at COMSPOC.

In another example involving only Chinese spacecraft, the PLA in 2018 launched and deployed what the US suspects is a counterspace satellite known as the TJS 3 (Tongxin Jishu Shiyan). According to the COMSPOC data, TJS 3 took position in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), in parallel to its apogee kick motor (the upper stage of the rocket).

“You see, all of a sudden they’re both right there, maneuvered to change their orbits, and they did that at the exact same time, and then the exact same way,” Cooper explained about the May 2019 incident. “So those maneuvers were basically done in tandem with each other. And you can see that the apogee kick motor — which is basically a rocket body — is now flying where the TJS 3 counterspace platform used to be,” he said.

Why did an upper stage rocket remnant in GEO suddenly fire up thrusters and start moving parallel to the satellite it helped push into orbit?

“What we think is happening here is the development and experimentation and validation of what we call a tactic, technique and procedure, a TTP, to spoof an enemy’s network for SSA [space situational awareness],” Cooper believes.

The maneuver occurred just as the day-night terminator passed by. “So we think that they timed this such that if an optical telescope was trying to look up there and see that maneuver, they would not catch it,” he said.

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