Beijing is in the process of modernizing and enhancing its space launch capabilities. During the week of June 27, China carried out the inaugural launch of its Long March 7 system, part of a new generation of rocket systems that include the Long March 5 and Long March 6. The Long March 7, using the most powerful rocket ever built in China, will be the workhorse of the nation’s future space missions, eventually carrying taikonauts and supplies into orbit for its planned space station. Though the launch was a notable achievement, the secondary payload it carried — the Aolong-1 or “Roaming Dragon,” a small satellite designed to collect space debris with a robotic arm — has stirred up familiar speculation about the true nature of China’s space program.
Like the United States and Russia, China recognizes the importance of space to modern military warfare. In the nearly 10 years since it conducted its first successful anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) test, Beijing’s interest in cultivating an array of ASAT capabilities has been well known. Now, some observers speculate that the Roaming Dragon may be another step in that direction.
As an ASAT, the Roaming Dragon’s design marks a significant departure for Beijing. China’s previous ASAT tests involved kinetic kill vehicles, which destroyed satellites on impact and spread potentially destructive debris into orbit. By contrast, the Roaming Dragon’s robotic arm would avoid creating debris by grabbing an adversary’s satellite. Over the past decade, international concern has mounted that space debris could render important orbits unusable unless it is cleaned up. China received considerable criticism for its 2007 kinetic kill vehicle test, which became the largest contributor to the estimated total of 500,000 pieces of refuse floating in space. Now that China has become arguably the world’s second- or third-most space-dependent country, it is in Beijing’s interest to ensure that space junk does not disrupt spaceflight. Even in a war with a more space-dependent adversary, China would be reluctant to deploy a kinetic kill vehicle or similar ASAT device and risk dispersing more debris — which could just as easily damage Chinese satellites — into orbit.
China’s Roaming Dragon highlights the dual nature of most space technologies. A space debris collector is programmed to capture any object of a certain size. In addition to the debris it is designed to pick up, the satellite would also gather other objects of comparable size. So, though perhaps not as efficient as a dedicated ASAT system, the Roaming Dragon could fill a covert anti-satellite function, while ostensibly operating as a benign debris collector. At the same time, however, China may be more interested in the Roaming Dragon as a means to grab uncooperative, unresponsive or dead satellites.
Scrutiny in Space
Whatever the satellite’s intended purpose, China is far from the only country testing systems with such applications. Japan launched the Space Tethered Autonomous Robotic Satellite-2 (STARS-2) in February 2014 to test a space tether of sorts planned for a future system that will use a giant net to collect space debris. NASA, meanwhile, is backing early research and development for space debris removal concepts, and it has been suggested that the U.S. X-37B space plane, whose activities are classified, may also collect space debris or satellites. These space programs are also implementing strategies for tracking and monitoring space debris.
Even so, China’s space program faces considerable scrutiny from the West — and especially from the United States. Since China’s space programs are shrouded in secrecy and largely fall under the purview of the People’s Liberation Army, Washington considers them another front in its economic, military and political competitions with Beijing. But every other space program in the world, including that of the United States, grew out of its country’s military. Although Beijing undoubtedly has every intention to exploit the military opportunities that space presents, ensuring that it has the necessary capabilities to compete with its peers, China’s space program includes considerable civil components as well.
The Long March 7 — much less its secondary payload — was not the main focus of the latest launch test. The launch marked the fourth successful use of China’s new Yuanzheng upper stage, designed to fire multiple times to boost heavy satellites, such as China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, into higher orbit. In addition, the rocket carried a mock-up of the new crew capsule for future manned spaceflights so that its performance during atmospheric re-entry could be tested. China also announced that the test included an experiment on refueling satellites in orbit. Moreover, China could have any number of mundane reasons to test the Roaming Dragon and several explanations for creating satellites that can dock with others, including refueling or maintenance missions.
Regardless of Beijing’s intentions for the Roaming Dragon, China’s space policy, like that of the United States, is multifaceted, encompassing anti-missile systems and exploratory space missions alike. Consequently, China’s space program — like all space programs — will always feature a tinge of ambiguity.