Mystery Satellite Movements: What Is China Doing?
Image: Ron Garan floating in the Internationa
An Awe-Inspiring Space Station Odyssey Launched aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 space vehicle on April 4, 2011, NASA astronaut Ron Garan was a part of the Expedition 27/28 crew. He remained in orbit for over five months, landing in Kazakhstan on Sept. 16. During his stay, Garan kept the world updated with a constant stream of photographs from space, capturing everything from aurorae, wildfires, hurricanes and, remarkably, a meteor. This slide show is devoted to a small selection of some of his best pictures. The entire collection can be browsed on Garan's TwitPic stream. Before leaving orbit, Garan posted a blog on the "Fragile Oasis" website about his inspiring space station odyssey. Here's some excerpts from what he had to say.
The Cupola "I've been told that when Sasha Samokutyaev, Andrey Borisenko and I land later today, we will have spent 164 days in space (162 on the International Space Station), made 2,624 orbits of the Earth, and will have flown 65,340,224 miles (but who's counting?)," Garan said. "After all this time in space, separated from the Earth, I have come to know a new existence up here. An existence that is without many of the sights, sounds, smells and feel of life on Earth, but an existence with its own share of special defining qualities." Shown here, Garan is photographed in the space station's cupola, looking down on the coast of Australia. The next day, he returned to Earth.
Aurora As energetic particles from the sun impact the upper atmosphere of Earth, a beautiful light show erupts. As solar activity was pretty high during Garan's tour of duty, he had numerous opportunities to photograph the majestic and dynamic aurora. Shown here, the green auroral light (generated by excited oxygen molecules) snakes over our planet with the constellation of Orion hanging overhead.
Irene As Hurricane Irene barreled toward the East Coast of the U.S. in August, Garan and his crewmates had the best perspective on the sheer size of the storm. Shown here, on Aug. 27, Irene had just made landfall.
Eye of Katia As hurricane season marched on, another hurricane threatened the U.S. Fortunately, Hurricane Katia proved to be less of a threat than Irene. Garan captured this detailed photograph of Katia's eye on Sept. 5 as he flew overhead. The hurricane was passing through the Caribbean, near Puerto Rico.
Texas Wildfires It's not only natural disasters spawned by hurricanes that are obvious from space. As the space station orbited over the drought-ridden state of Texas, a number of wildfires are obvious, belching smoke high into the atmosphere.
Sunglint "I will miss watching the Earth transform from day into night and night into day sixteen times a day," said Garan. The space station is treated to 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets per day, so there are endless opportunities to see how the sun transforms the land and ocean below. Shown here, sunlight bounces off the waters surrounding Newfoundland on Aug. 27.
A Meteor! In Space! "I will miss watching meteors streak across our atmosphere below us, the rapid fire paparazzi flashbulbs of lightening storms at night, and flying so close to dancing curtains of auroras that you feel like you could reach out and touch them," he said. In this impressive (and now famous) photograph, Garan's photography skills came into play, capturing a meteor during the Perseid Meteor Shower in mid-August.
Night Lights As the space station passes over the night-side of Earth, human activity is traced with light. Seen here, Garan managed to photograph the River Nile delta in Egypt...
Icebergs! An iceberg floats off Petty Harbour (Newfoundland) in the Labrador Sea. "It's bigger than my hometown of Yonkers, NY," Garan remarked.
Sunrise "I will miss looking at our beautiful planet and the grandeur of our universe from this vantage point," said Garan.
Sunset... and Moonset? Setting almost simultaneously, the sun disappears over the horizon, followed closely by a crescent moon.
The Shuttle During Space Shuttle Atlantis' (and Shuttle Program's) final mission, Garan snapped the orbiter as it approached for docking on July 10, 2011. The shuttle's cargo bay doors are open, showing the cylindrical Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module used to resupply the space station. Caribbean islands form the backdrop.
Find out what went on during the shuttle's final mission to the International Space Station in our special photographic tour.
Unexplained satellite movements in orbit, secretive payloads, testing of potential anti-satellite technologies and no official explanation — this sounds like the plot of the next James Bond adventure. But this is no 007 movie, this is the storyline of several Chinese satellites that are raising eyebrows in the West.
As reported by veteran space correspondent Leonard David at SPACE.com, no one really knows what China is up to and this has led to speculation in space analyst circles.
The speculation is focused on the satellites Shiyan-7, Chuangxin-3 and Shijian-15, all of which were launched on the same Long March 4C (CZ-4C) rocket on July 20 (pictured top).
The official word was that the trio carried science payloads. Nothing too strange with that. But then Shiyan-7 (also known as SY-7, or Experiment 7) recently carried out a series of maneuvers with Chuangxin-3 (CX-3) only for it to make a sudden course change to rendezvous with an older satellite, Shijian 7 (SJ-7, Practice 7), which was launched in 2005.
At launch, one of the newest satellites was thought to be equipped with a robotic arm manipulator (although, at the time, space analysts did not know which one) and at the time the Chinese language press specifically mentioned “space debris observation,” “mechanical arm operations” and the testing of “space maintenance technologies,” according to Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst and China project manager within the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.
At face value, this could indicate that China is working on peaceful space debris mitigation technologies. Perhaps the odd maneuvers of Shiyan-7 reveal the development of techniques of orbital debris retrieval? Worryingly, there’s also a flip side to this coin.
“Since space systems are largely dual use, it should not be surprising that there would be interest in the ability to maneuver satellites in close proximity … but neither should there be blithe assumptions that this is necessarily for solely peaceful ends,” Dean Cheng, a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., told SPACE.com.
In 2007, China made its military capabilities in space abundantly clear. The nation launched an anti-satellite missile that intercepted one of its own satellites. This orbital target practice not only proved that satellites in low-Earth orbit are not safe from surface attack, the action generated around 3,000 pieces of extra space junk in a heavily used altitude — an act that drew heavy international condemnation. The debris from the intercept persist to this day.
Space is the ultimate “high ground” in military strategy, so China’s provocative act obviously generated a huge amount of concern and no doubt motivated the U.S. to test its own anti-satellite missile on the defunct spy satellite USA-193 in 2008. As the satellite’s orbit was degrading, that successful satellite intercept did not produce the orbital debris that the Chinese test did. Though the official line was that USA-193 needed to be taken out due to the hazardous fuel on board, the strike was an obvious reply to the Chinese test a year earlier.
So are these most recent strange satellite maneuvers another development in anti-satellite capabilities? If so, the US and China will need to make a decision. Do both powers pursue anti-satellite technologies or do they find a way to cooperate in space like the US and Russia did toward the end of the Cold War?
“Major powers can ramp up a competition to damage satellites, or they can arrive at tacit agreements to dampen this competition,” said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Stimson Center and director of its South Asia and Space Security programs. “The United States and the Soviet Union chose wisely. China has yet to choose.”
Image credit: Corbis