According to an article published by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Feb. 24, China is intending to launch almost 13,000 low-earth orbit satellites in a bid to counter Elon Musk’s Starlink.
“The project has the code name ‘GW’, according to a team led by associate professor Xu Can with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Space Engineering University in Beijing. But what these letters stand for is unclear,” wrote SCMP.
The constellation will consist of 12,992 satellites owned by the newly established China Satellite Network Group Co, Xu and his colleagues said in a recently published paper about “anti-Starlink measures published in the Chinese journal Command Control and Simulation on February 15.”
As of now, China has not communicated a launch or completion date, however according to the SCMP, Xu says the ambition is to have the new GW network in orbit before Musk is able to fully complete Starlink’s constellation.
Xu says that a quick deployment of the Chinese network may prevent SpaceX, the company responsible for Starlink, from “hogging” low-earth orbit. Chinese researchers are also reportedly concerned that SpaceX may some day be weaponized.
“The Starlink satellites may use their orbital maneuverability to actively hit and destroy nearby targets in space,” the researchers claim.
Xu said that China’s efforts would “ensure that our country has a place in low orbit and prevent the Starlink constellation from excessively pre-empting low-orbit resources,” the SCMP reported.
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China’s constellation is intended to provide global internet services, akin to the service Starlink offers, however with the added capabilities of being able to spy on its rival Starlink satellites or even disable individual ones.
Starlink hopes to have as many as 42,000 satellites in orbit when the constellation is finished. As of Nov. 2022 the company had launched 3,271 of which 3,236 are considered operational. Starlink satellites have an approximate lifespan of five years. More recent data indicates that Starlink currently has 3,639 operational satellites in orbit.
China’s plans to build a rival satellite constellation have been in the works since 2020 when China filed for permission to launch 13,000 satellites with the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva and it was in 2021 that Beijing established the China Satellite Network Group, saying that satellite internet was a crucial part of China’s infrastructure.
China’s ambitions have been met with some skepticism with popular tech blog GIZMODO saying that the Chinese researcher’s paper is “common amongst Chinese academics, and for the moment it remains exactly that–an idea sketched out on paper.”
Kevin Hurler, writing for GIZMODO, questions whether China has the means to launch such an ambitious endeavor.
SpaceX has the advantage of the Falcon 9 rockets, which are reusable, and played a large role in accomplishing the company’s constellation, something China does not have.