3 November 2019
Is This China's Anti-Satellite Laser Weapon Site?
By Daniel Porras
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientsts


A well-regarded website devoted to "open source military analysis" believes that the picture, above, is of a Chinese anti-satellite laser weapon. Space security experts aren't so sure. And besides, they say, the lines between laser research lab, stargazing facility, range finder, and full-on weapon site are really, really blurry.

In recent years, China's military has made no secret of its interest in developing space weapons. Back in 2006, China fired lasers at U.S. satellites, possibly blinding the spacecraft for a bit. The following year, Beijing used to a missile to destroy an old weather satellite in orbit. And just this week, the head of China's air force pledged to militiarize space "in order to protect peace."

"They certainly are on a fast track to improve their capabilities," Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of U.S. Strategic Command, tells the Associated Press.

In a post today, the* IMINT & Analysis/a>* blog asserted that these rectangular buildings in the Tian Shan mountain range of Xinjiang province could be hiding the next phase of the Chinese arsenal. The Tian Shan facility looks a lot like known Chinese laser research centers, the blog states. Plus, the "camouflaged buildings and robust security measures mark it as a military facility." All which makes it likely that "some form of high-energy laser system is being deployed" – one that could "dazzle, blind, or destroy a satellite."

Yousaf Butt, a staff scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, examined the same images – and reached a different conclusion. "I see no evidence for any high-energy destructive laser ASAT [anti-satellite] facility in what the author has posted, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," he tells Danger Room.

"I don't see much to get riled up about," e-mails Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. For one thing, the shape of the place seems all wrong for a really destructive anti-satellite [ASAT] laser system. To build one, she explains, the Chinese would need "1. a tracking system (at minimum an off-the-shelf type laser coupled with a small diameter mirror) basically a laser ranging system 2. the high powered laser 3. a highly steerable mirror for directing the laser beam onto the satellite."

It's possible that a high powered laser is in the rectangular shed, the ASAT mirror is in the round enclosure, and the tracking system or guide star system is in the smaller rectangular enclosure? I will have to think about it some more, but I don't see how you would put the ASAT mirror in the rectangular building with a sliding roof, unless the telescope somehow got raised out of it, which seems unlikely. To track a satellite, you need to be able to follow arcs in all sorts of directions and have a pretty clear field of view so I would not expect that kind of mirror to be inside a rectangular building with a sliding roof.

And even if the place* does* have some lasers pointing skyward, it doesn't necessarily make the place a ray gun site. The U.S. Air Force’s Starfire Optical Range shoots lasers into space to get a clear view of objects in space. China's Anhui Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics uses lasers to keep track of satellites. Or lasers could be employed to designate targets to more conventional ASAT weapons. "It's much simpler to have a laser homing seeker on the kill vehicle than to try to make the kill vehicle smart enough to do infrared homing," notes GlobalSecurity.org director John Pike.

But here's the really confusing thing. The lasers could be used for a relatively-benign purpose – and still have military utility, too. Because the Chinese wouldn't need a high-powered laser to target spacecraft. In 1997, the U.S. fired a weak, 30-watt laser at a satellite, and temporarily blinded it. "It is straightforward to dazzle – and even permanently damage, i.e. blind – imaging satellites with even relatively mediocre power lasers," Butt writes. "You don't need a big fancy facility to permanently damage the sensors on imaging satellites."

So what exactly is going on at the base in the Tian Shan mountains? Right now, it's hard to say.

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