China is surging ahead in the race to weaponise space, completing 50 orbital launches this year as it looks to gain military advantage.
The successful Chinese satellite deployments, up from 35 last year, outstripped those of the US, which carried out 43 mainly commercial launches this year.
Australian space industry firm LeoLabs has been closely tracking the Chinese launches, along with 3000 already-in-orbit satellites, and more than 18,000 pieces of space junk.
“The US hasn’t surpassed 50 launches since 1967 – the height of the Cold War,” LeoLabs president Terry van Haren told The Australian.
Mr van Haren, a former air force commander and fighter pilot, said about 70-80 per cent of Chinese satellites were believed to be either for military or dual-use purposes.
They included orbiting anti-satellite systems, intelligence and surveillance satellites, advanced communication and ocean reconnaissance systems, and GPS-style navigation satellites.
Mr van Haren warned that in the event of a conflict, China’s offensive space capabilities would be able to knock out Western communications systems, navigation and timing reference systems.
“What is space war? It’s actually like a big game of chess,” he said. “What you do is you deploy all your pawns before you start a conflict. You need to have all your pawns ready to defend and ready to attack.
“A lot of this suspicious activity is mostly related to their preparations for a potential space conflict.”
Mr van Haren said it was vital to “distrust and verify” all Chinese launches, initially by radar and later by telescopes and other sensors. He pointed to the October launch of an alleged “debris mitigation” satellite by China, known as Shijian-21, which was sent into geostationary orbit, where debris isn’t a concern.
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The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft launches in June with three Chinese astronauts onboard at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Jiuquan, Gansu province, China. Picture: Getty Images