China Is Trying to Quickly Launch 13,000 Satellites to Defeat Starlink

A Long March 3B carrier rocket carrying an experimental satellite blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on December 30, 2021 in Xichang, China. Liu Guoxing / VCG via Getty Images

By Jackie Appel,
Published by Popular Mechanics, 24 February 2023

How will Elon Musk and SpaceX respond?

  • China is aiming to send thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink.
  • The satellites will be able to track those in the Starlink mega-constellation, and will secure China a place in the low orbit space.
  • As worries about the militarization of Starlink persist, China aims to be able to monitor the positions and behaviors of Starlink satellites, and disable them if they see the need.

China is preparing to send almost 13,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit in order to directly compete with—and monitor—SpaceX’s Starlink constellations.

Huge numbers of satellites like this are becoming less and less unexpected. They are not without their faults—a fact that any astronomer whose data has been ruined by the devices’ reflectivity will be quick to tell you—but they have the potential to increase internet coverage and communication efficiency around the world. So, it’s not surprising China wants in on the action.

The project, codenamed “GW,” is being run by a newly established group called China Satellite Network Group Co, whose hope is to quickly launch a total of 12,992 small satellites into orbit. This would dwarf Starlink’s current count of around 3,500 satellites, though SpaceX plans to have 12,000 satellites in orbit by 2027 and an eventual total count of 40,000 orbiting devices.

China’s need to move so quickly on this project comes from a desire to prevent Starlink from dominating the low-Earth orbit space and preventing other companies or countries from occupying the area. Researchers at the People’s Liberation Army’s Space Engineering University in Beijing involved with the China Satellite Network Group Co are hoping, according to the South China Morning Post, to “ensure that our country has a place in low orbit and prevent the Starlink constellation from excessively pre-empting low-orbit resources” and “gain opportunities and advantages at other orbital altitudes, and even suppress Starlink.”

The China Satellite Network Group Co has also made claims about wanting to be able to track, and even disable, Starlink satellites with their own constellations. Researchers with the group have expressed concern about Starlink satellites’ maneuverability, and claim that ability might be used to target and destroy other objects in space. By launching their own fleet of devices into the mix, China hopes to be able to match that potential.

And as concerns over the potential military applications of Starlink satellite constellations continue to rise, especially regarding the current conflict in Ukraine, China wants to be able to identify each of the Starlink satellites and know their movements. To aid in this aim, the researchers from the Space Engineering University have suggested China start an international “anti-Starlink” coalition that could jointly demand SpaceX make the precise locations of its satellites public knowledge. But as this data is not yet available, getting up into orbit themselves may be China’s best bet for keeping track of Starlink.

A launch date for these satellites hasn’t been announced, so we don’t know yet when we’ll see these new objects in the sky. But keep an eye on the sky in the future—the next strange collection of lights you see may very well be from these satellites.

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