China’s secretive reusable spacecraft, the Shenlong space plane, has deployed 6 unidentified objects into orbit after a recent mission, sparking intrigue and speculation among amateur satellite trackers.
Space Plane Mission Shrouded in Secrecy
The Shenlong space plane, variously translated as “Divine Dragon” or “Magic Dragon”, landed at an airfield in China on December 13th after 2 days in orbit. Very little is officially known about the space plane or its missions, as the Chinese government has released no details.
Amateur satellite observers began tracking the space plane and noticed 6 additional unidentified objects in a similar orbit that appeared after its landing. Their origins and purpose is unknown, as China has not acknowledged deploying anything from the space plane.
The objects appear to be tumbling slowly and are transmitting radio signals with a consistent pattern, indicating they are most likely artificial satellites or spacecraft rather than space debris.
The space plane itself does not broadcast its position and orbits the Earth once every 90 minutes – an unusual orbit that keeps it mostly over China. It is extremely secretive and security is heavy around its landings. This is only the 9th known mission of the Shenlong since its first launch in 2022.
Speculation Abounds on Nature of Mystery Objects
With no official explanation forthcoming, experts and observers have speculated widely on what the objects could be:
- Small inspector satellites designed to observe and gather intelligence on other satellites
- Decoys or countermeasure satellites to defend against anti-satellite weapons
- Smaller shuttle craft to perform various operations like repairs, sabotage, or captures
- Miniature spy satellites intended to monitor communications
- Test vehicles for advanced propulsion experiments
There are concerns that the objects may have offensive military purposes given their deployment from a suspected space weapon platform like the Shenlong.
The space plane itself is suspected to be testing technologies for space warfare, orbital weapons deployment, and advanced propulsion that could power hypersonic vehicles. Its obscured orbital path may be evidence of an onboard laser weapon. Very little concrete evidence is available however given the almost total secrecy surrounding the Divine Dragon program.
History of Suspected Weapons Testing in Space
China has been ramping up its space capabilities considerably in recent years, greatly expanding its orbital launch volume and developing new rockets and crewed spacecraft. It has shown interest in militarizing space alongside rapid modernization of its conventional forces.
There is a history of secretive weapon testing in orbit. In 2020, Russia tested a satellite that deployed another satellite capable of maneuvering to stalk and spy on other objects in orbit.
In 2021, China launched a rocket to carry a mysterious payload linked to a suspected anti-satellite kinetic kill vehicle. The details and purpose of that test were never revealed.
The US and Russia have previously tested anti-satellite missiles launched from aircraft. China demonstrated a ground-launched system in 2007. India made a similar show of force in 2019.
With space assets becoming ever more vital for national security and military operations planning, major powers are investigating means to threaten their adversaries orbital capabilities. Testing of potential anti-satellite systems and other space weaponry has been largely kept out of the public eye.
The Shenlong space plane, capable of maneuvering in orbit and possibly deploying offensive payloads without being tracked from the ground, may provide China a new avenue for advancing its space warfare preparations away from scrutiny.
Amateur Tracking Provides Glimpses Behind the Curtain
While official sources remain silent, a global network of amateur satellite observers keeps watch on all objects in orbit. Using personal telescopes equipped with cameras and radio receivers, they monitor the skies for new launches and track movements of satellites.
Recent improvements in commercially available antenna technology have made it possible for hobbyists to pick up and decode transmissions from satellites in addition to optical tracking. Amateur generated orbit data is accurate enough that space agencies and the military sometimes make quiet use of it.
It is these unpaid satellite watchers in their backyard observatories that first reported on the mystery objects trailing behind the Shenlong space plane, once again drawing aside the veil on secret activities in orbit. They will continue to play a crucial role in revealing capabilities hidden behind the cloak of military space programs.
What Comes Next?
With China again flexing its space muscles in dramatic fashion, and suspiciously synchronized with recent close flybys of Russian satellites near American spacecraft, concerns are rising that the next flashpoint for confrontation between global powers could shift beyond our atmosphere.
If the mystery objects are part of a new Chinese anti-satellite initiative, the US and its allies will surely feel pressure to harden their space assets and accelerate defensive weapon systems. There are already moves underway in Congress to establish a dedicated military branch for space operations. They seem more prudent than ever in light of recent events.
For now the objects and their mission remain obscure – simply strange lights traversing the void silently under cover of secrecy. But their implications may echo long beyond their muted signals into the halls of global power and military doctrine. This could prove a pivotal moment that defines the next era of space exploration as one of cooperation or conflict. Much remains in the balance.
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