These rare occurrences were featured by Dr. Brien Flewelling during a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Secure World Foundation last month. Flewelling is the chief architect of space situational awareness for ExoAnalytic Solutions, a private US company that tracks the position of satellites using an extensive global network of optical telescopes. China’s SJ-21 satellite was seen changing its usual place in the sky on Jan. 22 to approach the decommissioned Compass-G2 satellite. A few days later, SJ-21 attached to G2, altering its orbit.
Chinese officials have yet to confirm that the apparent space tug happened. From Earth’s perspective, satellites in GEO appear to be motionless except for a wobble or two. This type of orbit is sometimes called a Clarke orbit, named after British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. He popularized the idea of GEO in a 1945 article promising to revolutionize telecommunications.
SJ-21, which was launched in October 2021, has now returned to geostationary orbit (GEO) just above the Congo Basin. GEO occurs when a satellite orbits the Earth above the equator at the same speed as the planet spins. Less than two decades later, the first geostationary satellite was launched.
The Compass-G2, or BeiDou-2 G2, is a spacecraft from China’s BeiDou-2 navigation satellite system that failed shortly after launch in 2009. For more than 10 years, the metal carcass has been wandering around the Earth alongside millions of other pieces of space trash. Over the next few days, the spacecraft pair began dancing westward, ExoAnalytic video footage showed. On January 26, the two satellites separated and G2 was cast into oblivion.
There is nothing wrong with littering – many other countries have launched or are developing technologies to dispose of space waste. The Chinese space tug: a service or a threat?
James Dickinson, commander of US Space Command, said in April 2021 that technology like China’s SJ-21 “could be used in a future system to capture other satellites.” Japan launched its ELSA-d mission in March 2021, designed to test space debris capture and disposal technologies. The European Space Agency plans to launch its own waste disposal mission in 2025. However, despite the apparent pervasiveness of efforts to develop and implement space waste disposal technology, some US officials have expressed concern regarding Chinese waste disposal satellites like the SJ-21.
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