Satellite imagery appears to show that China has tested a new anti-satellite weapon based on a road-mobile ballistic missile.
A detailed analysis of the imagery published Monday provides additional evidence that a Chinese rocket launch in May 2013 billed as a research mission was actually a test of a new weapon system.
Brian Weeden, a former US Air Force space analyst, published a 47-page analysis on the website of The Space Review, which he said showed that China appears to be testing a kinetic interceptor launched by a new rocket that could reach geostationary orbit about 22,500 miles above the earth.
"If true, this would represent a significant development in China's anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities," wrote Weeden, now a technical adviser for Secure World Foundation, a Colorado-based non-profit focused on secure and peaceful uses of outer space.
"No other country has tested a direct ascent ASAT weapon system that has the potential to reach deep space satellites in medium earth orbit, highly elliptical orbit or geostationary orbit," he wrote, referring to orbital paths that are above 1,250 miles over the earth.
The article includes a previously undisclosed satellite image taken by DigitalGlobe that shows a mobile missile launcher, or "transporter-erector-launcher" (TEL) – used for mobile ground launches of ballistic missiles instead of a fixed pad – at China's Xichang missile launch site.
Given the absence of a different rocket at the Xichang site that could have carried out the 2013 launch, Weeden said there was now "substantial evidence" that China was developing a second anti-satellite weapon in addition to the previously known system designated as SC-19 by US agencies. He said the new system may use one of China's new Kuaizhou rockets.
Weeden renewed his call for the US to release more information about the Chinese weapons development program, arguing that more public dialogue was needed about efforts to develop and test anti-satellite weapons around the world.
"Remaining silent risks sending the message to China and other countries that developing and testing hit-to-kill ASAT capabilities is considered responsible behaviour as long as it does not create long-lived orbital debris," Weeden said.
US military officials have been increasingly vocal about China's development of anti-satellite weapons over the past year, but they have not been nearly as critical as they were after China destroyed a defunct weather satellite in orbit in 2007, creating more than 3,000 pieces of debris.
Weeden said US intelligence agencies remained reluctant to reveal any finding on China's weapons development efforts for fear of revealing "sources and methods" of intelligence-gathering, but said that policy could ultimately backfire.
"One wonders if the overbearing secrecy regarding intelligence about Chinese ASAT testing might end up negatively impacting US policy efforts down the road, including efforts to develop norms of behaviour in space," he wrote.
Weeden said US officials might also be worried that creation of new international norms would undermine Washington's own work on a mid-course missile defence system, which could inherently be used to destroy other countries' satellites, and a "long overdue" effort to develop anti-satellite weapons to protect its own space resources announced last May.
The US currently has no known weapons dedicated to ASAT missions but was the first country to develop anti-satellite weapons in the 1950s and, as Weeden noted, Washington's use of a modified Standard Missile-3 to destroy a falling US satellite that contained toxic chemicals had proven the country has the ability to destroy a satellite in orbit if required.
He said China was likely to carry out additional tests of the new system, including possible intercept tests, which could be "extremely dangerous and damaging" for other countries that operate satellites.
Weeden also analysed US comments about debris from China's May 2013 launch re-entering the atmosphere above the Indian Ocean, and said they were in line with US claims that the Chinese launch reached a high point or apogee of 18,600 miles, rather than the 6,200 miles that the Chinese had claimed.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.