Engage China, Engage the World

In congressional reports and testimony, the Pentagon suggested in 2003 that China may be developing a "parasite microsatellite"-a small satellite, weighing less than 100 kilograms, that would secretly attach to an American satellite and destroy it on command. The claim was picked up by the press including the online news outlets Space Daily and Space.com, the latter noting that "China appears to be sharpening its war fighting space skills" and then devoting a third of the story to the "parasite microsatellite."

In the end, it turned out to be all a hoax. Although a representative from the Pentagon noted that their claim was based on a single story that had appeared in a Hong Kong tabloid but was "being evaluated," the Pentagon never actually looked into the assertion. A pair of scholars recently discovered the story and more than 70 others like it in Chinese sources appear to have originated on a single Internet bulletin board maintained by a self-described "space enthusiast" from a small town in Anhui province.

How could the Pentagon be so gullible? The story contained the smallest kernels of truth: China's Tsinghua University-along with groups in Algeria, China, Nigeria, Thailand and Turkey- is working with the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom to launch a constellation of microsatellites for disaster monitoring. These satellites, however, are incapable of performing the function of "parasite microsatellites".

The "parasite microsatellite"-hoax traded on the anxiety of many in the United States over the spread of space technology so dramatically symbolized by China's successful manned-mission launch. No longer the preserve of just a pair of superpowers, several dozen countries now own and operate satellites in orbit. The first step in this revolution was the proliferation of spacelaunch technologies. In addition to the United States and Russia, Europe, China, Ukraine, India, and Japan now offer commercial launch services. Israel also has a spacelaunch capability, and may soon be followed by Brazil, Iran and North Korea. The next step for these fledgling spacefaring nations will be the development of inexpensive but highly functional microsatellites similar to those being developed by the University of Surrey.

As access to space technology becomes more widely available, the international laws regarding space technology and its transfer continues to reflect the bipolar 1960s when the then-Soviet Union and the U.S. competed for space dominance. The "parasite microsatellite" hoax demonstrates one danger in the growing gap between the rules and reality of the modern world. Without a more refined legal regime to set rules and build trust and confidence between the U.S. and China, even a disaster monitoring constellation can look like a "parasite microsatellite".

Consider another instance in which a poorly designed regime can create feelings of anxiety: In January 2001, the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, informally known as the "Rumsfeld Space Commission", cited "Indonesia jamming a transponder on a Chinese-owned satellite" as recent example of the growing threat to space assets. Yet the reality was more complex. APT Satellite of China reported "limited interference" with its Apstar-1A satellite from another satellite in a nearby orbital slot, which was operating on the same frequency. Although the space commission called the interference "jamming," the interference in actuality resulted from two satellites operating too closely together, mainly because China and Indonesia disputed ownership of the orbital slot. The dispute was eventually resolved peacefully.

Indonesia, however, questioned the right of the International Telecommunications Union to resolve the issue. The "jamming" story, then, raises an important question: What is the best way to fill the gaps in the current outer space legal regime? The option favored by the Rumsfeld Space Commission emphasized the development of new military capabilities at the expense of refining international law. Yet, how can we expect to succeed in controlling space? Judging by the growth of space-launch and satellite programs around the world, export controls have largely failed to maintain U.S. commercial superiority, let alone control access to space. At present, the U.S. military is now developing a "space control" doctrine and systems as more countries gain access to orbit. We must have some military options just as we have some export control, but just as export controls before them were not enough, these efforts are not enough.

"Space control" does virtually nothing to address the most serious threats posed by the growing number of space-faring states. These threats include orbital debris, orbital crowding and improving transparency in outer space.

Managing these issues-which threaten the common interest in the peaceful use of space-will require broader international cooperation. Perhaps no state will be more important in developing stable solutions to these problems than China. There are three pressing items that need addressing:

  • Improvement of orbital debris mitigation: The Inter-Agency Debris Coordinating Committee (IADC)-which includes representatives from space agencies in China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the European Space Agency-has drawn up a set of voluntary guidelines to control debris creation. The next step is for the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) to adopt the IADC guidelines, perhaps followed by a U.N. resolution calling on all states to refrain from using the launch services of parties that do no comply with the guidelines. So far, Russia and India have blocked the COPUOS from adopting the guidelines.
  • Improvement of space-traffic control: A working group convened by the four leading non-governmental organizations concerned with space issues--the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the U.N. Office on Outer Space Affairs, the Confederation of European Aerospace Societies and International Academy of Astronautics--recently called for more extensive efforts to improve space traffic control procedures. The report concluded that current catalogs are too inaccurate for effective traffic control. The extent of uncertainty in the location of LEO objects in current catalogs varies, depending on altitude and orbital inclination, but "is generally on the order of tens of kilometers." The Air Force does not track objects in real time, either. Instead, the Air Force uses "predictive" techniques to monitor space objects, periodically checking objects for changes in orbit.
  • Improvement of transparency in outer space: Concern over China's "parasitic microsatellite" arose because several countries, including the United States, are developing small satellites capable of conducting "autonomous proximity operations"-maneuvers that would allow satellites to inspect other satellites, diagnose malfunctions and provide on-orbit servicing. Such satellites could also provide sophisticated surveillance in space and would make excellent anti-satellite weapons. The first step to improve transparency is to improve compliance with U.N. Resolution 1721B (1961) and the U.N. Convention on Registration of Outer Space Objects (1975), which require states to provide basic information about satellites launched into outer space. The United States, followed by China, is the worst offender in terms of flouting the U.N. Registration Convention, often submitting incorrect data or simply failing to register some of their satellites.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis is a research fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park (CISSM). A longer version of this article, with full citations, will be available at his website: www.armscontrolwonk.com.

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