News Analysis

A U.S. news publication revealed an “in-orbit game of cat and mouse” between a U.S. surveillance satellite and two new Chinese satellites in geostationary orbit, angering Beijing. In response, China’s state-run media published a commentary on June 30 that slandered the United States, accusing it of “threatening [the] Chinese satellites’ safety.”

SpaceNews reported on June 16 that China launched two satellites, Shiyan-12-01 and Shiyan-12-02, to geostationary orbit (GEO) early this year. The U.S. surveillance satellite USA 270 reportedly moved toward the Chinese satellites “to get a closer look.”

When the USA 270 closed in on Shiyan-12-01 and Shiyan-12-02, the Chinese satellites “took off in opposite directions.” But the Shiyan-12-02 moved into a position that can “get a sunlit view of the U.S. surveillance satellite,” according to SpaceNews.

“It’s pretty clear that as USA 270 gets close, these guys are getting out of Dodge,” Space News quoted Dan Oltrogge, research director at COMSPOC. “It also demonstrates that countries are doing what we call counterspace. They’re taking action to avoid disclosure of their capabilities or their activities.”

COMSPOC Corp. is an American space situational awareness (SSA) company based in Pennsylvania.

The GEO is an essential and fragile orbital shell. Its orbital period is the same as the Earth’s rotation period, which means a satellite can remain motionless on the vertical equator at a fixed position relative to any point on the surface of the Earth. This can allow the satellites in GEO to telecommunicate, broadcast television, observe, and forecast weather that covers a fixed region on the ground.

At the same time, “one collision or explosion could spread very quickly throughout the GEO belt,” Oltrogge said. “It requires careful allocation and assignment of spacecraft for both conjunction-assessment purposes and to make sure you don’t have RF [radio frequency] interference.”

Moreover, some satellites allegedly attempted to damage other countries’ interests in GEO in recent years. For example, a Russian satellite in GEO was found intercepting military-related communications between two European satellites in 2018.

To enable space flight safety, such as satellite collision avoidance, the U.S. military launched the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites in 2014, which monitors the resident space objects (RSOs) and performs rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO). RPO means two or more satellites matching in space and then performing maneuvers to affect their relative operations, including positions, information exchanges, and mechanism exchanges.

The GSSAP works well “without the interruption of weather or the atmospheric distortion that can limit ground-based systems,” the U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) posted on its official website in September 2019.

Visitors take photos in front of the Shenzhou-7 spacecraft module during an exhibition on “China’s First Spacewalk Mission” at the Hong Kong Science Museum, in Hong Kong, on Dec. 6, 2008. (SAMANTHA SIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Beijing Fires Back

The Chinese regime doesn’t allow private companies or individuals to work on space research or develop related technologies. At the same time, Beijing treats the progress of China’s space development as guarded state secrets.

After SpaceNews reported on the close encounter between the U.S. satellite and two Chinese satellites, Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times published a commentary on June 30, claiming that the action of the U.S. satellite was “threatening [the] Chinese satellites’ safety.”

The article claimed the USA 270 approached the Chinese satellites, Shiyan-12-01 and Shiyan-12-02, with the intention of “monitoring secretly.”

Global Times warned that “China has the ability to track and maneuver satellites with extreme precision. … Space is a new field for the benefit of mankind, and is also a new battlefield that is moving towards militarization and weaponization.”

Global Times is published by People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Thus, articles published by Global Times and People’s Daily represent the CCP’s stance.

Epoch Times Photo
A piece of a Long March 3B rocket that fell in a field in Suichuan County in China’s central Jiangxi Province is seen on Dec. 11, 2016. The rocket sent an FY-4 meteorological satellite to geostationary orbit on the day. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Conflicts in GEO

The GEO has become more and more crowded in recent years. According to the latest information from UCS Satellite Database, 574 operational satellites were in geostationary orbit, up from 449 in January 2018. In detail, the United States owned 179 satellites in January, while China had 80 and Russia operated 33, the UCS Satellite Database showed.

“When you say, ‘that satellite moves next to mine to spy on me,’ that may be true. Or maybe that was the only free space they could find to park for a while,” SpaceNews quoted Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and spaceflight analyst, to describe the situation in GEO.

Not limited to spying, the Chinese satellites in GEO can pose as threats based on the current technologies that China recently unveiled.

US-China Space Race

China launched the Shijian-21 space debris mitigation satellite into GEO on Oct. 24, 2021. In late December, the satellite approached a defunct Beidou-2 G2 navigation satellite in orbit, rendezvoused with it, and then docked with it. On Jan. 22, the Shijian-21 hauled the Beidou-2 to a graveyard orbit about 200 miles above the GEO belt.

COMSPOC recreated the process by using video animation.

With the successful operation of Shijian-21, China became the second country in the world to possess the capability of removing a satellite.

The United States acknowledged that China is developing advanced space technology.

U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, USSPACECOM commander, testified before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on March 8: “In 2021, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] increased on-orbit assets by 27 percent. … In January, the recently launched SJ-21 ‘space debris mitigation’ satellite docked with a defunct PRC satellite and moved it to an entirely different orbit. This activity demonstrated potential dual-use capability in SJ-21 interaction with other satellites.”

Dickinson confirmed the USSPACECOM could protect and defend against such threats but asked Washington for more support to “authorize and fund Space Domain Awareness programs that enable USSPACECOM to monitor, characterize, and attribute behavior as well as provide combat-relevant indications and warning of potential threats to U.S. government, allied, and partner space systems,” according to the USSPACECOM statement.

China’s test of a new hypersonic weapon last year raised red flags. In an April report, the Defense Intelligence Agency warned that China and Russia pose the biggest threat to U.S. national security interests in space.

Nicole Hao


Nicole Hao is a Washington-based reporter focused on China-related topics. Before joining the Epoch Media Group in July 2009, she worked as a global product manager for a railway business in Paris, France.

You Might Like
Learn more about RevenueStripe...