US sees China missile launch as test of anti-satellite muscle

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States (US) government believes a Chinese missile launch this week was the first test of a new interceptor that could be used to destroy a satellite in orbit, one US defence official told Reuters on Wednesday.

China launched a large missile on Monday that reached 10,000km above the earth, the highest suborbital launch seen worldwide since 1976, according to Mr Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

China has said the rocket, launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in western China, carried a science payload to study the earth's magnetosphere.

However, a US defence official said US intelligence showed that the rocket could be used in the future to carry an anti-satellite payload on a similar trajectory.

"It was a ground-based missile that we believe would be their first test of an interceptor that would be designed to go after a satellite that's actually on orbit," said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee, declined to comment specifically on the rocket launch, but said China was clearly taking a more aggressive posture in space.

"Any time you have a nation-state looking to have a more aggressive posture in space, it's very concerning," Mr Rogers said at a Reuters Cybersecurity Summit.

The US remains concerned about China's development of anti-satellite capabilities after Beijing shot a missile at one of its own defunct satellites in orbit in 2007, creating an enormous amount of debris in space.

Monday's rocket launch was similar to launches using the Blue Scout Junior rocket that were conducted by the US Air Force in the 1960s for research on the Earth's magnetosphere, Mr McDowell said in an emailed response to questions.

He said all the previous suborbital launches above 10,000km had been conducted by the United States. All China's previous missile tests went to less than 2,000km, although Beijing had launched orbital vehicles higher, including to the Moon, he said.

Most scientific suborbital launches are at most 1,500km or so, Mr McDowell added. The 1976 launch was Gravity Probe A, when National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and Mr McDowell's institute worked together to launch an atomic clock to 10,280km.

Monday's launch came less than a week after US Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter unveiled what he called a "long overdue" effort to safeguard US national security satellites and develop ways to counter the space capabilities of potential adversaries.

US military space officials are taking steps to improve the resilience of national security satellites in orbit, the defense official said.

These include using new wave forms to make it more difficult for adversaries to jam signals from space, putting US sensors on commercial satellites and using terrestrial high frequency communications.

Last week, the Pentagon released an 83-page report on Chinese military developments that highlighted China's increasing space capabilities and said Beijing was pursuing a variety of activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.