China in Space: How Long a Reach?
They have launched people into orbit several times, begun testing of a potential competitor to the ISS, and plan to launch a Moon rover in a few months. Sounds all very scientific.
Then there’s this.
In July, for example, the CNSA launched a trio of satellites, allegedly as part of a project to clean up space near Earth by removing orbital debris. Such debris is indeed a problem, given the number of launches that have happened since the hoisting of Sputnik in 1957. Nor did China itself help when, during the testing of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, it blew one of its own redundant satellites into about 150,000 pieces. So a charitable view might be that this mission was a piece of contrition. Cynics, however, suspect that what was actually launched was another type of antisatellite weapon—or, at most, a piece of dual-use technology which could act as a space-sweeper as well.
One of the newly launched probes was indeed equipped with a robotic arm of the sort that might pick up space litter. The other two were, the story went, to stand in for bits of debris. But once initial tests were over, the satellite with the robotic arm made a number of unusual manoeuvres and approached not one of the devices it was launched with, but rather an ageing satellite in a different orbit—just the sort of behaviour that would be useful if you wanted to eliminate an observation or communication satellite belonging to another country.
The Chinese are understandably proud of what their space agency has done to date, with no obvious glitches or casualties. But China’s leaders take the long view for every national enterprise. The strategic use of space science has got to be one facet of their race into space.