Chinese satellite was observed grabbing another satellite and pulling it out of its normal geosynchronous orbit and into a “super-graveyard drift orbit.” The maneuver raises questions about the potential applications of these types of satellites designed to maneuver close to other satellites for inspection or manipulation and adds to growing concerns about China’s space program overall.
On January 22, China’s Shijian-21 satellite, or SJ-21, disappeared from its regular position in orbit during daylight hours when observations were difficult to make with optical telescopes. SJ-21 was then observed executing a “large maneuver” to bring it closely alongside another satellite, a dead BeiDou Navigation System satellite. SJ-21 then pulled the dead satellite out of its normal geosynchronous orbit and placed it a few hundred miles away in what is known as a graveyard orbit. These distant orbits are designated for defunct satellites at the end of their lives and are intended to reduce the risk of collision with operational assets.
The unusual maneuver was observed by telescopes belonging to commercial space awareness firm Exoanalytic Solutions. During a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) this week, Exoanalytic Solutions’ Brien Flewelling said the SJ-21 satellite “appears to be functioning as a space tug.” Space Command did not respond to a request for comment, Breaking Defense reports.
Space Force has been increasingly turning to commercial space companies to provide a variety of data and services to boost its situational awareness, and to that end, Joint Task Force-Space Defense awarded Exoanalytic Solutions a contract in 2021 to provide space domain data. “Comms, data relay, remote sensing, and even ISR and some other things — [these] capabilities are increasingly available in the commercial market,” Space Force deputy Lt. Gen. David Thompson said last year.
SJ-21, or Shijian-21, was launched in October 2021 atop a Long March-3B rocket. The satellite is officially designated as an On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing, or OSAM satellite, a broad class of satellites designed with capabilities to get close to and interact with other satellites. Such systems could enable a wide range of applications including extending the life of existing satellites, assembling satellites in orbit, or performing other maintenance and repairs. According to Chinese state news outlets, SJ-21 was designed to “test and verify space debris mitigation technologies.”