Why Is China Sending Classified Satellites Into Orbit? | Unveiled

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In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the latest classified space launch by the China National Space Agency (CNSA). At the start of another top secret mission by China, we ask why various governments (all over the world) are launching mysterious payloads into space? And what will happen in the future if it continues?

Why Is China Sending Classified Satellites into Orbit?

On December 10th, 2021, China had yet another successful space launch, putting its yearly total of launches at around fifty – a record-breaking 12 months. But though this is a point of celebration for China, some people in other parts of the world are growing increasingly concerned. What implications do top-secret space missions have for the rest of the world?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; why is China sending classified satellites into orbit?

The 2021 launch is putting another pair of the clandestine Shijian-6 satellites into orbit, a series of satellites that have been launching every so often since 2004; though, no SJ-6 satellites were launched after 2010 until 2021. The satellites are a closely guarded secret; we know they’re being launched and the official line from the CNSA is that the satellites are being used to study outer space, specifically space radiation. However, the high security surrounding the satellites – like no schematics being made public, nor images of the satellites themselves – has led to widespread speculation that something else is going on. Specifically, many believe that the satellites are equipped for electronic reconnaissance; essentially, they may be eavesdropping on communications around the world. It’s entirely possible that the satellites are studying space radiation, but many are doubtful that this is their only or main purpose.

It’s not exactly surprising to see China keeping its cards close to its chest. The country has become notorious for its stringent controls on what information is allowed to be circulated and accessed by its population, as well as what information is available to the foreign press. But Shijian-6 isn’t necessarily unique. The CNSA launches lots of top-secret missions, and in 2020 news broke that China had successfully delivered a reusable experimental spacecraft into orbit. It’s thought this is unrelated to their spaceplane project, known as Tengyun. Since 2006, China has also been launching its Yaogan satellites, these in trios, which are classified as well; like the SJ-6s, no images have been released, and their official purpose is “electromagnetic environment surveys”. However, experts believe that these satellites are also for reconnaissance.

But what exactly are these satellites looking for, if they really are being used for spying? Well, in the case of Shijian-6, it’s thought they’re involved specifically in naval reconnaissance. So, China isn’t using them to eavesdrop on civilian phone calls or anything like that: they’re keeping an eye on rival militaries and navies the world over, many of which they consider potential threats. In terms of sheer tonnage, the United States has the biggest navy in the world, with Russia having the second biggest and China coming in third. Of all the countries, the US certainly has the most fraught relationship with China. Russian-Chinese relations are currently better than they’ve ever been, which means China is probably primarily interested in what the American military is doing. Considering there has been non-stop speculation for years now that the US and China are heading into a new Cold War and potentially a global conflict, it’s not surprising that China would want to spy on the US navy. After all, if, in an awful dystopian future, the US and China really do go to war and it’s not a nuclear conflict, the US navy would lead any kind of ground invasion. And where nuclear warfare is concerned, the US has many submarines equipped with nuclear missiles. If any country wanted to launch a nuclear attack on the US, those submarines would need to be dealt with first to try to limit retaliation – though, it’s likely that completely preventing nuclear retaliation would be impossible regardless.

Other countries with huge navies include the UK and Japan. The UK has long been a major military ally of the US and also has nuclear submarines at its disposal, while Japan has had many conflicts with China over the years, including a full-scale invasion in 1937. The horrific Nanjing Massacre, and the internment camps and “research” centres built by Imperial Japan during World War II, left deep national scars. Given that both the UK and Japan have at points in history been enemies of China, it’s reasonable to assume that they might be the focus of military satellites. The good news here is that the majority of people don’t need to worry about them too much; most people in the world are not officers in the United States Navy who have to be concerned about top-secret details and communications being leaked. While we do live in an age of surveillance, with both private companies and governments collecting our data, it’s doubtful that the Shijian-6 satellites are spying on random civilians.

And China isn’t the only country conducting classified space missions, either. Over the years, NASA has been involved in many secret missions carrying classified payloads from the CIA and Department of Defense. One notable instance was the STS-27R space shuttle mission in 1988. Because this was so long ago we now know exactly what this payload was: a Lacrosse 1 satellite, also designed for reconnaissance, the existence of which wasn’t even publicly acknowledged until 2008. And NASA hasn’t always been on the same side as the DoD, either; in 1974 there was a famous incident involving Skylab, where NASA took photographs of the Air Force facility at Groom Lake – better known as Area 51. Area 51’s existence wasn’t acknowledged by the US government until 2013, despite it being a poorly kept secret for years, which is why the Skylab incident caused such chaos. Astronauts aboard Skylab took the images despite, according to a CIA memo, being specifically asked not to.

Equally, Russia has a long history of highly classified space missions. The entire Soviet space program was kept classified, with missions being kept completely secret until they were successfully completed and turned into propaganda. Moreover, only two weeks before the Shijian-6 launch in 2021, Russia also sent a classified payload into space on Soyuz. This payload is believed to also be a satellite, and one designed to warn Russia about incoming missile strikes.

The simple fact is that all countries are spying on each other all the time. Some of the biggest movies and most popular media franchises – James Bond, for example – are about heroic spies doing often unethical things for the good of their own countries. So, it’s a little hypocritical to look only at China’s classified space missions when countries like Russia and the US have been doing the same thing for years. The US is also known to spy on many of its allies in Europe, helped by none other than the Danish, in a scandal that broke in 2021. This is despite EU countries pledging in public not to spy on one another, speaking out against America’s propensity for spying on its “friends” as far back as 2013.

And it’s not just foreign countries being spied on, either; both the US and China have huge domestic surveillance networks. China has the most CCTV cameras of any country in the world, boasting around 200 million of them – but it doesn’t have the highest number of cameras per capita. It has the second-highest, with an average of 14 cameras for every person, while the United States has an average of 15 per person and a significantly lower population than China; about 340 million to China’s 1.4 billion. In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked that America’s National Security Agency was spying not only on the rest of the world, but on the American public as well. While the US’s infamous PATRIOT ACT may have had the public aim of tackling dangerous extremism, in practice it’s largely been used to spy on American civilians, collecting massive amounts of data.

Nobody is denying that the Chinese government surveils its population, but western countries are doing the same. Indeed, the country with the third-highest number of CCTV cameras per capita is that other emblem of western freedom, the UK – though, it’s still only got half as many as the US. And certainly, many American satellites will be conducting identical reconnaissance on China’s military – maybe they’ve even worked out if the Shijian satellites are for spying or not. Does China really have an obligation to explain what every single one of its satellites is doing, more than another superpower that conducts clandestine space missions like the US and Russia? Well, no; transparency is, in this case, all or nothing, and it seems they’ve chosen “nothing”.

Countries always have and always will spy on each other to protect themselves if they think they’re at risk of some kind of attack or are in danger. And that’s why China is sending classified satellites into orbit.