The Chinese government is building a satellite capable of launching and controlling a swarm of smaller drone satellites, known as cubesats, that can carry out complex attacks around Earth’s orbit.
The South China Morning Post first reported that Chinese researchers at the China Academy of Space Technology were studying a satellite mothership that could launch smaller attack satellites. These drone satellites could plot their courses, as well as the courses of adversary satellites, and determine when and how to attack.
Each of these smaller drone satellites, known as cubesats, would weigh about two pounds. The satellite mothership could control tens or even hundreds of cubesats.
According to Chinese researchers, the tasks that this spacecraft and its smaller drone satellites would carry out would be too difficult for human operators to control independently. Even some artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms would struggle to handle complex tasks.
Chinese researchers have already tested an advanced AI algorithm that could manage this swarm of satellite drones. Their algorithm was able to map out a complex drone swarm mission in four minutes, 227 times faster than a generic algorithm.
The Chinese test algorithm was also able to map out a number of mission options that China’s military could use. In one scenario, the algorithm mapped out the most fuel-efficient mission, carrying out the drone swarm strike on its target range in 68 hours while using about 96 kg (212 lb) of fuel. As an alternative, the algorithm also drew the fastest mission, which could strike its range of targets in 18 hours, while using 950 kg (about 2,094 pounds) of fuel.
This satellite mother ship and its cubesats are the latest in a series of Chinese anti-satellite and space weapons. Russia, which is increasingly becoming a military partner of China, has already been observed using similar small attack satellites.
In 2020, small satellites broke away from a larger Russian satellite and flew close to a US spy satellite. Russia claimed the small spacecraft were “inspector” satellites, but the US believes they behave more like space weapons and could “kinetically kill satellites” operating in low Earth orbit.
Chinese cubesats could pose an even greater threat than Russia’s inspection satellites.