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China launches military satellite that will take aim at space junk

China successfully launched a military satellite to test "space debris mitigation technology," according to state media reports.

The satellite, riding on board a Long March 3B rocket, lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China at 9:27 p.m. EDT Saturday, Oct. 23 (0127 GMT or 9:27 a.m. local time Sunday, Oct. 24.)

Footage from China Central Television shows the rocket, backdropped by hills, lifting off amid cloudy conditions at the launch site. The satellite on board is called Shijian-21 and will be "used for the verification of space debris mitigation technology", China state media provider CCTV said in a brief English-language report.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which is the main contractor for the Chinese space program, added that the launch was a "complete success" as the satellite had achieved its intended orbit, although the report didn't reveal which orbit that was exactly. (A SpaceNews report suggests the satellite was moved to a geosynchronous transfer orbit.)

Related: The worst space debris events of all time

A Chinese Long March 3B rocket launches the military space debris mitigation satellite Shijian-21from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on Oct. 24, 2021. (Image credit: CASC)

The various Chinese-language news reports, machine-translated into English, provided few details about the classified military mission. So far there have been no details about Shijian-21's mission or capabilities.

The mission is taking place amid a global movement to reduce space debris or to create active technologies to address it, including new efforts by companies ranging from Northrop Grumman and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak's stealth startup, Privateer

With regard to Chinese interests in this field, reports emerged in August that a Chinese satellite was walloped by a piece of old Russian rocketry in March. The G-7 nations (which do not include China) pledged to address space debris during a meeting in June.

But China has been undergoing space scrutiny lately; senior NASA officials have been outspoken about China's space activities in recent months, and the country deliberately allowed a huge rocket to fall uncontrolled to Earth in May. 

SpaceNews noted the military focus of the mission would likely attract more international attention. "[Since] space debris mitigation technologies are 'dual-use,' having both civilian and military applications, the satellite is likely to attract interest and scrutiny outside China," the report said.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.