China’s recent satellite launch is sparking fears from some experts who say it can be used as a weapon capable of grabbing hold of and crushing American satellites.
The satellite named Shijian-21, after the Chinese word "practice," was propelled into space Saturday atop of Long March 3B rocket launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, a military facility in the mountains of the mountains in Sichuan province of southwestern China, Space Flight Now reported. Its exact mission is classified, though the state-run China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., said the satellite is "tasked with demonstrating technologies to alleviate and neutralize space debris," The Washington Times reported.
During a Senate committee hearing in April, U.S. Air Force Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the U.S. Space Command, said spacecraft like Shijian-21 are being utilized as part of the Chinese effort to seek "space superiority through space and space-attack systems." An earlier model, the Shijian-17 satellite, which was launched in 2016, also was equipped with a robotic arm that could be used to grapple other spacecraft, Dickinson testified.
"One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm," Dickinson testified. "Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites."
Though the primary function of Shijian-21 is communication and monitoring space debris, analysts say it is also capable of maneuvering to grab and crush other orbiting satellites. Dickinson previously told Congress co-orbital robotic spacecraft is part of what he described as a growing arsenal of space weaponry fielded by the Chinese military, the Times reported.
The Shijian-21 satellite was launched to geostationary orbit, or a circular orbit of about 22,236 miles above Earth's Equator, which is a frequent operating location for military and commercial communications satellites.
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The satellite was launched about a week after three Chinese astronauts began their six-month mission on China’s first permanent space station. The crew’s Shenzhou-13 spacecraft was launched and docked with the Tianhe core module of the space station before the three astronauts entered the station's core module, the China Manned Space Agency said. Livestream video showed three men and woman floating inside.
They are the second crew to move into China's Tiangong space station, which was launched last April. The first crew stayed three months.
The crew plans to do three spacewalks to install equipment in preparation for expanding the station, assess living conditions in the Tianhe module, and conduct experiments in space medicine and other fields. China’s military-run space program plans to send multiple crews to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional. China was excluded from the International Space Station largely due to U.S. objections over the Chinese program’s secretive nature and close military ties, prompting it to launch two experimental modules before starting on the permanent station.
These developments come after the test of a Chinese hypersonic missile in August appeared to catch U.S. military officials by surprise, with one person allegedly saying the U.S. had "no idea how they did this." The revelation that China has advanced in developing hypersonic weapons has renewed calls for the U.S. military to invest both in hypersonic weapons as well as the capability to combat such weapons.
Hypersonic weapons are broadly defined as any vehicle or missile that moves at Mach 5 – five times the speed of sound, or around 3,800 miles per hour. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, which have existed for some time: Russia, the United States, China and – most recently – North Korea have all tested ICBMs of this speed or greater, according to Popular Science.
The U.S. has actively pursued the development of such weapons since the 2000s. Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten has stated, these weapons could enable "responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats [such as road-mobile missiles] when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred."
Fox News’ Peter Aiken and The Associated Press contributed to this report.