China is studying the possibility of using nuclear bombs in low orbit to form a radioactive cloud large enough to damage, even cripple or destroy several satellites. Learning lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian war, China is reportedly considering using these weapons against the Starlink constellation which could help Taiwan during a Chinese invasion.
A few days ago, we learned that researchers from the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology, led by the People’s Liberation Army (China), had developed a model to estimate the range and extent of damage, with unprecedented precision and detail, that an anti-satellite nuclear weapon could cause to different altitudes. According to these researchers, a 10 megaton warhead could pose a serious threat to satellites if it exploded at an altitude of only 80 kilometers. A digital simulation validated and confirmed their work and model.
According to these researchers, a nuclear explosion at this altitude would transform air molecules into radioactive particles. The cloud generated could reach an altitude of almost 500 kilometers and extend over an area of more than 140,000 square kilometers. The induced residual radiation could cause minor and major malfunctions, or even lead to the loss of the satellites that pass through it.
The Starlink constellation in the sights of the Chinese military
Such an anti-satellite nuclear weapon would allow China to paralyze or destroy several satellites of a constellation, for example, making it difficult to use. The impact on its operation would be much more significant than the use of anti-satellite missiles which can only neutralize a limited number of targets. Added to this, the loss of a few satellites would not have a great impact on the operations of the constellation. Converselythe debris generated could also hit Chinese or friendly satellites.
This technique and these nuclear bombs could be used against SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. Since the commissioning of this constellation, China has always considered it hostile to these interests. And the situation has not improved with the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It has become a major concern for Chinese political and military leaders since they became aware of its formidable military capabilities: the Ukrainian armed forces use it to calculate the trajectory of their missiles and geolocate their targets, fly drones and secure their communication in particular.
However, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has just obtained a third term, has made the annexation of Taiwan a top priority for the Chinese Communist Party. China therefore takes a very dim view of this constellation which could support the island of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.