Engage China, Engage the World

Author data: 
Jeffrey Lewis
Publication Date: 
April 2005
Description: 

Ad Astra 17:2, April/June

Project: 
Re-evaluating Space Security
The Reconsidering the Rules for Space Project
Document Type: 
Articles and Op-Eds

In congressional reports and testimony, the Pentagon suggested in 2003 that China may be developing a "parasite microsatellite" a small satellite, weighing less than 100 kilograms, that would secretly attach to an American satellite and destroy it on command.1 The claim was picked up by the press including the online news outlets Space Daily and Space.com, the latter noting that "China appears to be sharpening its war fighting space skills" and then devoting a third of the story to the "parasite microsatellite."

In the end, it turned out to be all a hoax. Although the Pentagon noted that the claim was being evaluated, the Pentagon never actually looked into the assertion. A pair of scholars recently discovered the story and more than 70 others like it in Chinese sources appear to have originated on a single Internet bulletin board maintained by a self-described "space enthusiast" from a small town in Anhui province.

How could the Pentagon be so gullible? The story contained the smallest kernels of truth: China's Tsinghua University along with groups in Algeria, China, Nigeria, Thailand and Turkey is working with the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom to launch a constellation of microsatellites for disaster monitoring. These satellites, however, are incapable of performing the function of "parasite microsatellites."

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis is a research fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park