Data from the US military shows that two Chinese satellites likely performed multiple rendezvous 600 kilometers above Earth this summer, and may have even bumped into each other. The rendezvous have taken place over the past several months, between two Chinese “Shi Jian” (Practice) spacecraft, SJ-06F and SJ-12, that are officially listed as science satellites.
News of the Chinese satellite encounters was first reported by a Russian news source in mid-August, and this week Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation wrote an extensive article for The Space Review.
Weeden said the maneuvers could be a rehearsal for the technology needed to build a space station, but it also shows China may now have the ability to approach and potentially interfere with other satellites.
“On-orbit rendezvous is a complex operation, and one that has only been done a few of times before, most notably by the US satellite XSS-11,” Weeden wrote, “which inspected the rocket body that placed it in LEO, and one of the US MiTEx satellites, which inspected the failed DSP-23 satellite in GEO. The rendezvous of two Chinese satellites demonstrates that China is broadening its space capabilities, but also touches on the greater issue of perceptions, trust, and safety in space activities that could impact the long-term sustainability of the space regime.”
Weeden said US military data suggests that one satellite may have been bumped and its orbit altered slightly on August 19. The change in its orbit can’t be explained by the usual things that affect satellites, such as the drag from the Earth’s atmosphere.
In January 2007, China destroyed a derelict satellite with a ballistic missile, which the US also did in February 2008.
For now, one can only speculate about the reasons for China performing these types of difficult and rare maneuvers with their satellites. You can read more about the technical nature of the events on The Space Review.