Sanjay Kumar writes: The Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology has made ground breaking progress in developing technology to send satellites into space via rockets delivered from Chinese aeroplanes. The Y-20 strategic transport plane is likely to be used for this purpose; once the plane reaches certain height it would release the rocket from its fuselage.
The rocket than fires its engines and propels itself into Low Earth Orbit to launch one or more microsatellites. The China has built the capability to put 100 kg satellite into LEO as of now and is working on to enhance capability to 200 kgs. This uses solid-fuel rockets which can be readied within 12 hours.
As per the Chinese media, the technology will allow China to quickly replace “dysfunctional” satellites, as well as launch ad hoc, last-minute satellites into orbit, as part of disaster-relief efforts.
DARPA of US was working on similar Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program for quite some time. However, recent report suggests temporary suspension of its crucial project owing to some technological certification and validation of safety of NA7 monopropellant. Also, it is exploring the possibilities to exploit potential of the private industry in providing low cost and responsive space access.
Satellites normally are launched via booster rocket from a limited number of ground facilities, which can involve a month of preparation for a small payload and significant cost for each mission. Fixed launch sites can be rendered idle by something as innocuous as rain, and they also limit the direction and timing of orbits satellites can achieve.
Fixed launch sites would invariably be under close monitoring during a conflict and probably would be the first to be targeted. Therefore, this capability is also seen as a counter challenge to ASAT capabilities, which will provide China ability to launch mission specific satellites at short notice. This technology would provide flexibility of launch and surprise the adversary’s counter measure capabilities. China’s Micro Satellite program has also tested crucial technologies like Low Earth Orbit communication, digital imagery etc that will help China quickly re-build its lost ISR and communication network in case of crisis.
This technological prowess provides China resilience to withstand first strike over its satellite network and rebuild desired capability by quickly launching constellation of micro satellites. It would also pave way for China to have larger footprint in commercial space market and in turn help increase its geopolitical influence in the region.