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Chinese scientists demand that Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites be destroyed.

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Chinese scientists demand that Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites be destroyed.

Chinese military experts have called for the development of a “hard kill” weapon capable of destroying Elon Musk’s system if it poses a threat to ’s national security.

The researchers emphasized Starlink’s “huge potential for military applications,” as well as the need for China to develop countermeasures to monitor, disable, or even destroy the growing satellite . Their paper was published in the journal China’s Modern Defense last month. The paper is available in translation here (opens in new tab).

Starlink is a broadband network developed by Musk’s that aims to provide internet access to customers worldwide (as long as they have a Starlink satellite dish to connect to the satellites). SpaceX has launched over 2,300 into low-Earth orbit since the first ones were launched in 2019, and the company plans to launch up to 42,000 satellites into space to form a massive megaconstellation.

The Chinese researchers were particularly concerned about the constellation’s potential military capabilities, which they claim could be used to track hypersonic missiles, dramatically increase the data transmission speeds of US drones and stealth fighter jets, or even ram into and destroy Chinese satellites. China has already had some close encounters with Starlink satellites, writing to the United Nations last year to complain that the country’s space station had to perform emergency maneuvers to avoid “close encounters” with Starlink satellites in July and October 2021.

“A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be used to render some Starlink satellites inoperable and destroy the constellation’s operating system,” the researchers wrote in the paper, led by Ren Yuanzhen, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications, which is part of the Chinese military’s Strategic Support Force. The two types of space weapons are hard kill and soft kill, with hard kill being weapons that physically strike their targets (such as missiles) and soft kill including jamming and laser weapons.

China already has several methods for deactivating satellites. According to the US Department of Defense, these include microwave jammers that can disrupt communications or fry electrical components; powerful millimeter-resolution lasers that can capture high-resolution images and blind satellite sensors; cyber-weapons that can hack into satellite networks and destroy them; and long-range anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles that can destroy them (opens in new tab). However, the researchers believe that while these measures are effective against individual satellites, they will not be sufficient to derail Starlink.

“The Starlink constellation is a distributed system. The conflict is not about individual satellites, but about the entire system “The researchers wrote about it. The researchers also described how a Starlink system attack would necessitate “some low-cost, high-efficiency measures.”

It is unclear what these measures might be. The researchers propose that China develop its own spy satellites to better spy on Starlink, as well as new and improved methods of hacking its systems and developing more efficient methods of downing multiple satellites in the network. This could imply the deployment of lasers, microwave weapons, or smaller satellites capable of swarming Starlink’s satellites. China is also planning to compete directly with Starlink by launching its own satellite network. Its name, Xing Wang, or Starnet, also aims to provide paying customers with global internet access.

Starlink has previously been used for military purposes. Just two days after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked Musk on Twitter to send more Starlink satellites to the country. Fedorov stated on May 24 at the Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that SpaceX has provided more than 12,000 Starlink satellite dishes to Ukraine, adding that “all critical infrastructure [in Ukraine] uses Starlink.”

Elon Musk stated earlier this month on Twitter(opens in new tab) that Russia had attempted multiple signal jamming and hacking attempts on Starlink. Dmitry Rogozin, the director of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, appeared to threaten Musk in a note to Russian , accusing him of supplying “militants of the Nazi Azov battalion” with “military communication equipment” and claiming that Musk would be held accountable. Musk responded on Twitter, writing, “If I die under mysterious circumstances, it’s been nice knowing ya.”

Because ASAT missiles create hazardous conditions for all spacefaring nations, China may be considering alternative ways to counter Starlink. Explosions in orbit are dangerous not only for their own sake, but also for the thousands of debris fragments they produce (ranging from basketball-size to as small as a grain of sand). Satellites could be seriously damaged by this space shrapnel. According to a U.S. Space Force database of orbital objects, a Russian anti-satellite missile test in November 2021 blew up a defunct Soviet-era spy satellite in low-Earth orbit, creating a debris field of at least 1,632 pieces that forced U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station to hide in their docked capsule.

The United States, China, India, and Russia have all conducted ASAT tests in the past, resulting in space junk. In April, the United States announced a moratorium on further ASAT tests. In October 2021, Chinese scientists claimed to have devised a method to avoid the debris problem by packing an explosive device inside a satellite’s exhaust nozzle, safely blowing up the satellite without making a mess and in a way that could be misinterpreted as an engine malfunction.

According to a recent report from the United States Department of Defense, China has more than doubled its number of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites from 124 to 250 since 2019. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, China’s total number of satellites, including non-ISR ones, was 499 at the start of 2022, second only to the United States’ 2,944, of which Starlink accounts for more than 2,300. (opens in new tab).

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