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 with the China Academy of Space Technology were studying a satellite mothership that could launch smaller attack satellites. These drone satellites would be able to 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 potentially control dozens or even hundreds of the cubesats.
According to the Chinese researchers, the tasks this satellite mothership and its smaller drone satellites would carry out would be too difficult for human operators to independently control. Even some artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms would struggle to handle the complex tasks.
The Chinese researchers have already tested out an advanced AI algorithm that could manage this satellite drone swarm. Their algorithm was able to plot a complex drone swarm mission in four minutes, 227 times faster than a generic algorithm.
The Chinese test algorithm was also able to plot a range of mission options that China’s military could use. In one scenario, the algorithm plotted the most fuel-efficient mission, carrying out the drone swarm attack its range of targets in 68 hours while using about 96kg (212 lbs) of fuel. As an alternative, the algorithm also plotted the fastest mission, which could attack its range of targets in 18 hours, while using 950kg (about 2,094 lbs) of fuel.
This satellite mothership and its cubesats are the latest in a number of Chinese anti-satellite and space-based weapons. Russia, which is increasingly becoming a military partner of China, has already been observed using similar small attack satellites.
In 2020, small satellites detached from a larger Russian satellite and flew close to a U.S. spy satellite. Russia claimed the small spacecraft were “inspector” satellites, but the U.S. believes they behave more like space-based weapons and could “kinetically kill satellites” operating in low-earth orbit.
The Chinese cubesats could pose an even greater threat than Russia’s inspector satellites.