China launches mysterious Shiyan-20C satellite to orbit

This week, I researched the various launches by the Chinese government that occurred in October 2022. This was initially inspired by the launch for Shiyan 20C, the latest in the experimental fleet of highly classified Chinese Space Agency satellites. While the nature of the satellite is classified, there is clear footage of the Long March 2D rocket taking off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on October 29th 2022. This brings into question the issue of Space Domain Awareness, specifically that no matter how classified a satellite is, modern technology and (relatively) simple mathematics allows even citizen scientists with the ability to track the motion of the satellite for the entirety of its mission duration until de-orbit, if so desired. The launch vehicle for Shiyan 20C has even historically been an object of citizen scientist interest. The rockets massive CZ-5-HO second stage has no method for controled deorbit. People have taken to tracking the re-entry of the spent second stage on twitter, with multiple successful recordings of previous missions crashing through the sky as the second stage renters. 

The month of October also ends with a massive 23 total launches world wide, putting the total number of rocket launches for 2022 ahead of 2021 with two months left to go in the year. This indicates the ever pressing need for more conscious effort to reduce waste in space at all stages. From launch, to mission life, to deorbit the problem of space debris is only going to grow as launches before more and more frequent. To add to the issue, many modern launches are hosting multiple payloads. A falcon 9 launch on October 28th 2022 launch an astonishing 53 Starlink satellites into orbit! 

The other spacecraft that  I dug more into this week was the Mengtian launched on October 31st 2022. Mengtian is the final piece of the Chinese space station and will rendezvous with the Tiangong space station later this year. The most interesting piece of information related to this launch concerns the Chinese Survey Space Telescope (CSST) that is anticipated to launch in 2023. The CSST will be in an orbit close enough the the Tiangong space station such that resupply missions to the station can also act as maintenance missions to the CSST. This is an ingenious approach to reducing both repair mission costs and environment impact of said missions. This decision also ensures that the missions lifetime can be extended indefinitely, thereby reducing the number of replacements needed.

Overall, my impression after learning more about the Chinese Space Agency is that there is more information available than I anticipated around the various missions and plans while also lacking anything of substance without extensive deep diving. This begs the question, what can be extrapolated about various agencies capabilities from their headlines and press releases alone, and what can be gleamed from the small stream of confidential information that is leaked from both the Chinese government and external government sources. With sufficient open source intelligence gathering (OSINT), would a dedicated actor be able to discern the true purpose of the Shiyan 20C? What if that actor had access to powerful enough tools to get in orbit pictures of the satellite and decrypt the downlink channel of the satellite? The position of the satellite is easy enough to determine, I theorize that the purpose of the satellite and primary payload objective will be known to those interested parties/adversaries in a matter of months. 


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