Low Earth Orbit Satellites Become Focus of US-China Aerospace Competition

CommentarySpaceX’s Starlink satellites, though primarily a civilian communications system, played an unparalleled military role in the Russian-Ukrainian war. In light of this, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ramped up its own Starlink program, with a new goal of launching 26,000 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites into space over the next decade. This ambitious plan is a clear indication of the space rivalry between China and the United States.LEO Satellites Key to Unmanned WarfareZhou Ziding, the host of “Exploration Time Military Channel” on YouTube, shared his observations and thoughts on the “Pinnacle View” TV program.“So-called unmanned warfare still involves human participation, with an operator stationed in control centers remotely controlling the unmanned drone, vehicle, or boat,” he said. “The U.S. Global Hawk drone was developed about 20 years ago, at a time when LEO satellites were not available. Communications relied on satellites in geosynchronous orbit, which introduced significant delays ranging from several hundred milliseconds to a full second due to their high orbit. Such delays were manageable for airborne operations such as reconnaissance, photography, or long-range targeting because the aircraft did not encounter obstacles in the air. However, for unmanned equipment on the ground or at sea, these delays could be fatal in wartime scenarios, making real-time communications critical and thus heavily dependent on LEO satellites.”LEO satellites orbit the Earth at a relatively low altitude, about 1,200 miles or less. Their short signal travel time makes them ideal for high-speed Internet and communications.Mr. Zhou believes the war in Ukraine has brought to the CCP’s attention a significant issue—the fact that the United States is leading the way in this area.“Ukraine has made extensive use of unmanned boats on the front lines, some with ranges of up to a thousand kilometers [about 620 miles], to attack Russian warships in coastal areas. Frontline videos show that when the Russians spot an unmanned boat, they try to destroy it with machine guns or missiles. However, these unmanned boats are remotely controlled and can evade and make timely decisions, thanks to Musk’s Starlink. Without it, relying on traditional geostationary communications satellites would introduce delays of several hundred milliseconds, making timely responses impossible, and enemy shells would hit before a response could be made,” he said.Related StoriesMr. Zhou believes that the future of unmanned warfare depends entirely on the real-time communications provided by LEO satellites. For this reason, the CCP is investing heavily to catch up with the United States and develop its own LEO satellites.US-China Aerospace RivalryGuo Jun, president of the Hong Kong edition of The Epoch Times, said on “Pinnacle View” that LEO satellites have numerous military and economic applications, making them a focal point of intense competition. However, the space race goes beyond satellites, and the U.S. military is particularly concerned about the CCP’s attempt to weaponize space.“A U.S. report mentioned that the CCP is researching nuclear weapons in space, which worries the United States, since it has long promised not to develop such weapons. Nuclear weapons on LEO satellites could bypass existing anti-missile systems, as these satellites can orbit the Earth in 90 minutes, potentially striking any target within 20 to 30 minutes,” she said.Ms. Guo noted that while the United States currently leads the space race, a recent think tank report indicates that China is rapidly closing the gap.“Despite China’s swift advancements, it lacks original innovation, which is crucial for technological leadership,” Ms. Guo said. “For example, five or six years ago, China was unaware of the importance of LEO satellites. Huawei, once a leader in 5G technology, is now being overtaken by 6G technology, which is likely to use LEO satellites as repeater stations. As a result, the CCP is investing heavily in LEO satellites and researching low-cost rocket launch methods, including rocket recycling technology.”Mr. Zhou added that although there is a gap between China and the United States in the space field, in other areas, China has accumulated significant technological expertise in space research, primarily through heavy investment in rocketry.“Since developing various ballistic missiles after the 1964 nuclear tests, China has maintained its nuclear deterrence capability. As a result, the gap between China and the United States in space technology is relatively small,” Zhou said.He noted that NASA’s contributions have diminished in recent decades, while SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s private company, has revolutionized the global space industry with innovations such as Starlink and Starship. Recognizing this, the CCP has set ambitious goals to catch up.“However, achieving these goals will require significant individual innovation and capital development. Given China’s increas

Low Earth Orbit Satellites Become Focus of US-China Aerospace Competition

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Commentary

SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, though primarily a civilian communications system, played an unparalleled military role in the Russian-Ukrainian war. In light of this, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ramped up its own Starlink program, with a new goal of launching 26,000 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites into space over the next decade. This ambitious plan is a clear indication of the space rivalry between China and the United States.
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LEO Satellites Key to Unmanned Warfare

Zhou Ziding, the host of “Exploration Time Military Channel” on YouTube, shared his observations and thoughts on the “Pinnacle View” TV program.

“So-called unmanned warfare still involves human participation, with an operator stationed in control centers remotely controlling the unmanned drone, vehicle, or boat,” he said. “The U.S. Global Hawk drone was developed about 20 years ago, at a time when LEO satellites were not available. Communications relied on satellites in geosynchronous orbit, which introduced significant delays ranging from several hundred milliseconds to a full second due to their high orbit. Such delays were manageable for airborne operations such as reconnaissance, photography, or long-range targeting because the aircraft did not encounter obstacles in the air. However, for unmanned equipment on the ground or at sea, these delays could be fatal in wartime scenarios, making real-time communications critical and thus heavily dependent on LEO satellites.”

LEO satellites orbit the Earth at a relatively low altitude, about 1,200 miles or less. Their short signal travel time makes them ideal for high-speed Internet and communications.

Mr. Zhou believes the war in Ukraine has brought to the CCP’s attention a significant issue—the fact that the United States is leading the way in this area.

“Ukraine has made extensive use of unmanned boats on the front lines, some with ranges of up to a thousand kilometers [about 620 miles], to attack Russian warships in coastal areas. Frontline videos show that when the Russians spot an unmanned boat, they try to destroy it with machine guns or missiles. However, these unmanned boats are remotely controlled and can evade and make timely decisions, thanks to Musk’s Starlink. Without it, relying on traditional geostationary communications satellites would introduce delays of several hundred milliseconds, making timely responses impossible, and enemy shells would hit before a response could be made,” he said.

Mr. Zhou believes that the future of unmanned warfare depends entirely on the real-time communications provided by LEO satellites. For this reason, the CCP is investing heavily to catch up with the United States and develop its own LEO satellites.

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US-China Aerospace Rivalry

Guo Jun, president of the Hong Kong edition of The Epoch Times, said on “Pinnacle View” that LEO satellites have numerous military and economic applications, making them a focal point of intense competition. However, the space race goes beyond satellites, and the U.S. military is particularly concerned about the CCP’s attempt to weaponize space.

“A U.S. report mentioned that the CCP is researching nuclear weapons in space, which worries the United States, since it has long promised not to develop such weapons. Nuclear weapons on LEO satellites could bypass existing anti-missile systems, as these satellites can orbit the Earth in 90 minutes, potentially striking any target within 20 to 30 minutes,” she said.

Ms. Guo noted that while the United States currently leads the space race, a recent think tank report indicates that China is rapidly closing the gap.

“Despite China’s swift advancements, it lacks original innovation, which is crucial for technological leadership,” Ms. Guo said. “For example, five or six years ago, China was unaware of the importance of LEO satellites. Huawei, once a leader in 5G technology, is now being overtaken by 6G technology, which is likely to use LEO satellites as repeater stations. As a result, the CCP is investing heavily in LEO satellites and researching low-cost rocket launch methods, including rocket recycling technology.”

Mr. Zhou added that although there is a gap between China and the United States in the space field, in other areas, China has accumulated significant technological expertise in space research, primarily through heavy investment in rocketry.

“Since developing various ballistic missiles after the 1964 nuclear tests, China has maintained its nuclear deterrence capability. As a result, the gap between China and the United States in space technology is relatively small,” Zhou said.

He noted that NASA’s contributions have diminished in recent decades, while SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s private company, has revolutionized the global space industry with innovations such as Starlink and Starship. Recognizing this, the CCP has set ambitious goals to catch up.

“However, achieving these goals will require significant individual innovation and capital development. Given China’s increasingly restrictive market, technological and social environment, the CCP faces significant challenges in achieving its space ambitions,” he believes.

Ms. Guo shared similar views on the difficult period ahead for the development of science and technology in China.

“In recent decades, technology has developed rapidly, but basically none of the original innovations were made by Chinese scientists,” she said. “The Chinese learned these technologies and tried to improve them. Then, the CCP took advantage of its low-cost advantage to expand production and then monopolize and control the industry. In the past, China and the United States had close scientific and technological cooperation, including a large number of Chinese students studying and doing research in the United States. But in the future, there may not be such opportunities. If China lacks original innovation and relies mainly on imitation, this kind of decoupling of technology research will have a big impact on China. That is, others will not let you learn or steal their technology. So I think the impact of the U.S.-China technological decoupling may become more and more significant in 10 to 20 years, and the same goes for space competition.”

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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