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
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: