You can see an animation of the BX-1 companion satellite at 1:57 into the clip.

Anybody remember that really boring paper I wrote, in 2004, calling for “rules of the road” regarding autonomous proximity operations? (That’s when satellites maneuver around one another.) Me neither, but according to the internet, I said:

The launch of a Chinese micro-satellite with the capability of SNAP-1, let alone the XSS-11 or DART, would generate concern in many quarters of the United States. If the Chinese were to conduct a proximity maneuver near a U.S. satellite, the reaction would be apoplectic.

So, four years later the Chinese put up a small micro-satellite, BX-1, on a recent Shenzhou launch. It maneuvered near the ISS (sort of). Cue the apoplexy:

Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington DC-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, and the author of a new book, China’s Military Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach, is not surprised that there has been no official US statement or response to this puzzling episode.

“We do not know how close the BX-1 actually approached the ISS. But for me, at closure speeds of 3.1km/second, the Shenzhou-7 was already too close at 45 kilometers. I expect that in time leaks or questions from the Congress will lead to revelations of more data about the BX-1 pass-by of the ISS,” says Fisher.

This is precisely why we need rules. As it turns out, the Chinese were operating safely. But with few or no rules, what seems safe to a Chinese aerospace engineer may be way too close for Rick Fisher’s comfort. Without any rules defining legitimate behavior in space, BX-1 is an inkblot.

What you see says more about your personality than the Chinese space program. Peter Brown sums it up nicely:

BX-1 could well be little more than a peaceful probe merely engaged in “close proximity” operations with cameras and transmission equipment aboard. Or it could be a prototype satellite attack dog, a space surveillance and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) platform with anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, all rolled into a single menacing platform ready to pounce.

If you are the sort of person who likes to make decisions based on information, here is my recommended reading list on the BX-1 and proximity operations in general:

— Michael Katz-Hyman, Proximity Operations in Space, The Case for a Code of Conduct, INESAP Bulletin 26, June 2006.

— Jeffrey Lewis, Autonomous Proximity Operations: A Coming Collision in Orbit?, March 2004.

— Brian Weeden, China’s BX-1 microsatellite: a litmus test for space weaponization, The Space Review, October 20, 2008. (I think Brian mean inkblot, since litmus is an objective indicator of whether a solution is acidic or alkaline.)

— David Wright and Gregory Kulacki, Chinese Shenzhou 7 ‘Companion Satellite’, Union of Concerned Scientists, October 21, 2008.