China’s secretive spaceplane conducts proximity operations with small spacecraft

A recent news article by Andrew Jones for SpaceNews discusses China’s experimental reusable spaceplane conducting proximity operations with a smaller spacecraft, potentially testing its ability to capture the object. Launched for the third time on December 14, 2023, via a Long March 2F rocket, the spaceplane released an object into orbit. Observations indicate that the spaceplane executed rendezvous and proximity operations with the object, referred to as “Object G,” in early June 2024. Rendezvous and proximity operations refer to a set of maneuvers and procedures that enable a spacecraft to approach, interact with, and potentially dock with another object in space. These operations are considered useful for satellite retrieval, repair, and maintenance, or potentially for counterspace activities against adversary spacecraft. Despite China’s strict secrecy regarding the mission, the spaceplane project signifies a significant technological advancement, paralleling the capabilities of the U.S. Space Force’s X-37B. While the Space Force’s X-37B is on its 7th mission, China’s spaceplane is on it’s 3rd with the initial test flight lasting only 2 days and the second 276 days.

The cybersecurity implications of China’s proximity operations with its spaceplane are multifaceted. The ability to conduct such operations suggests advanced capabilities in space situational awareness, which could be leveraged for both defensive and offensive actions in space. This poses potential risks to satellite security, as the spaceplane could theoretically be used to approach, tamper with, or disable adversary satellites. Ensuring the cybersecurity of satellite communications and control systems becomes paramount to prevent unauthorized access and potential sabotage. Furthermore, the secrecy surrounding the project raises concerns about the transparency and intentions behind these operations, highlighting the need for international norms and agreements to govern space activities and mitigate the risks of space-based cyber threats.