The launch of this small "companion satellite," which weighs in at about 88 pounds, is a big step forward because it demonstrates China's growing military capabilities in space.
"It's a significant new element in the U.S.-China military balance because, previously, the Americans had a free ride and could take for granted that they had space as a sanctuary," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org and an expert in Asian regional security issues.
The Shenzhou-7 spacecraft mission, which was launched Sept. 25, garnered a good deal of American media attention because it was China's maiden spacewalk, but the U.S. coverage barely mentioned the companion satellite.
The companion satellite's purpose is to photograph and study another orbital module left in space during the mission, according to Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Kulacki said China's ability to release one satellite from another satellite and then maneuver it successfully has potential military implications. But he also noted that the satellite itself poses no security threat.
This mission is the second major development for the Chinese space program in the last two years.
In January 2007 China conducted its first successful anti-satellite weapons test by destroying one of its own space weather satellites. The move angered the U.S. government, which accused the Chinese of making a move toward militarizing outer space.
Despite the U.S. government's concerns, the only circumstance under which the United States and China would engage in space warfare is in the face of another conflict, suggests Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst for Virginia-based think tank CNA.
And given the current stability of U.S.-Chinese relations and the economic interdependence of the two nations, Cheng and other experts agree that war is an exceptionally unlikely scenario.
Nevertheless, ongoing tensions over territories in the South China Sea and Taiwan's independence are two areas where experts acknowledge there is potential for conflict.
In one highly controversial scenario among experts, there is concern that the Chinese would disable U.S. satellites in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, thereby delaying a rescue by the U.S. Navy.
Although the term "space warfare" often calls to mind images of light sabers and battling astronauts, it is not like combat on Earth. Currently there are no weapons in space and nothing to shoot back or deter, other than satellites.
"In the case of China, investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines and ballistic missiles could threaten America's primary means to project power and help allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them," Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said in a speech Monday.
At the moment, however, China is not considered an enemy of the United States and experts are not aware of current programs under way at NASA, the Department of Defense or any other governmental branch to address specific concerns about China's military space plans.
U.S. State Department spokesman Noel Clay declined to comment on the possibility of space warfare breaking out between the United States and China.
Clay said the United States offered the Chinese assistance with their recent launch, an offer that was made in "the spirit of humanitarian assistance and the peaceful exploration of space."
China has a significantly smaller investment in outer space than the United States, and, although China has made great strides recently, it is still nearly 40 years behind American technology. The United States has approximately 800 satellites in orbit, while China has about 40, Kulacki said.
And although estimates for the Chinese space budget are unavailable, experts are confident the United States spends a great deal more on space. The NASA Authorization Bill, which Congress passed and which awaits President Bush's signature, requests $19.2 billion for NASA's 2009 budget.
The U.S. military relies heavily on space satellites for day-to-day operations -- for things like mapping, communication, weapons targeting, and spying -- and disruptions in the satellite system would hamstring all four military branches. In a time of war that could compromise both offensive and defensive movements.
Everyday Americans, meanwhile, rely on satellites for conveniences such as package tracking, GPS systems and weather forecasting.
This dependence on space is precisely why the Chinese might be wise to exploit the American space presence in the event of conflict.
"Would you be willing to let someone else interfere with all those aspects of business or commerce?" Cheng said. "If the answer is 'no,' then space conflict may very well affect you."
Although China's recent mission demonstrated its legitimacy as a full-blown space power, experts are hesitant to assert that the Asian nation would ever use these technologies to military ends. Both the United States and Russia conducted ASAT (anti-satellite weapon) tests in the past, for instance, but neither nation deployed a missile offensively.
But experts do suggest that both nations are exploring strategic implications.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the Chinese are researching methods to take out satellites, but we're also doing the same thing. At what point do you decide it's a real threat?" said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based research organization monitoring the military.
Hitchens cautions against jumping to conclusions about whether China is dedicated to anti-satellite space warfare because the Chinese are opaque about their space program and the United States lacks "in-the-open intelligence."
"There is a war of words, and a lot of research work, but not a direct space arms race," Hitchens said. "The situation is more akin to brinksmanship of the Cold War days. We are inching closer to the cliff, but as yet, no one has dared to jump off."
(Medill News Service)