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  • Sep 19, 2014
  • Updated: 5:48am
Malaysia Airlines flight 370
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China mulls global satellite surveillance after flight 370 riddle

Beijing mulls launching network of dozens of satellites, giving it the ability to monitor the whole world, in wake of lost flight 370

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 5:51am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 7:12am
 

China is considering massively increasing its network of surveillance and observation satellites so it can monitor the entire planet, scientists working on the project said.

The government is mulling building more than 50 orbiting probes, which Chinese researchers said would make the nation's satellite surveillance network on par with, or even larger than, that of the United States.

Frustration with the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft over the past three weeks had led the project to win strong backing from decision makers in Beijing, the researchers said.

"If we had a global monitoring network today, we wouldn't be searching in the dark. We would have a much greater chance to find the plane and trace it to its final position," said Professor Chi Tianhe, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth.

"The plan is being drafted to expand our regional monitoring capability to global coverage."

The number of surveillance and observation satellites now operated by China, which largely focus on the nation and surrounding region, is a state secret, but Chi estimated the US operated about 50 similar satellites.

It was not known when the project might start, but if approved by the government the satellites could be launched in as few as two years, according to Chi.

A satellite costs about 400 million yuan (HK$503 million) to build, according to estimates from experts in the mainland's space industry, meaning the total budget for the project would be at least 20 billion yuan.

After the Malaysia Airlines flight went missing, the Chinese Academy of Engineering submitted a letter from senior scientists to state leaders urging them to start construction of a global satellite-surveillance network as soon as possible, according to sources close to the academy.

Professor Liu Yu, a remote-sensing expert at Peking University's school of earth and space sciences, said the project had "almost incredible ambition" and if approved would be a game changer for China's ability to carry out observation from space.

More than 1,000 satellites now orbit the earth, but most are for communications. About 150 are earth-observation, remote-sensing and military-surveillance satellites, according to statistics from the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

"International earth-observation services today are dominated by the US and European countries, but if China launches more than 50 satellites for this purpose, the whole landscape will be changed," Liu said.

"The more Chinese satellites there are in space, the easier our work becomes. By analysing data from numerous satellites positioned at different locations and equipped with different sensors, we can understand much better an area of interest."

The project faces technological challenges even if it does get approval from the government.

China launches about 15 conventional satellites a year and would need to nearly double that if it was to meet its target of swiftly deploying a global network.

That would stretch the limit of existing space centres such as Jiuquan , Taiyuan and Xichang , which are also involved in other missions, including lunar exploration and manned space flights.

But the upgrade of China's largest launch centre at Wenchang in Hainan province is complete, with the first launch scheduled this year.

This would significantly boost China's rocket-launch capacity and make the project possible, space-industry experts said.

Scientists also need to improve the technical quality of the imaging equipment used in satellites, according to Liu, although progress has been made.

Professor Guo Ziqi, who also works at the Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, said the 50 or so new satellites would be run by numerous ministries, making co-ordination difficult.

China did not have a central agency to co-ordinate the positioning or tasks of satellites, he said.

Professor Zhao Chaofang , an oceanographer at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao , said China would also need to build many more ground stations at home and overseas to maximise the speed of sending back data.

"Many Chinese satellites can only offload their data when they are flying over China, so the data we receive is sometimes only a fraction of the amount collected by the satellites," he said.

"To build up a global monitoring network as efficient as that of the US, our ground stations overseas must be expanded as well."

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This article is now closed to comments

Dai Muff
The technology already exists to track every move of an airliner. It can be installed on the plane. It costs a little extra money so air companies do not want to install it. This is a solution in search of a problem. All that is needed is international regulation.
lucifer
They should also build a network of ladders and elevators that can take astronauts into space without the Huge cost of getting there.
pharding81
Haha, China mulls multi-billion dollar satellite system in response to one (albeit) tragic air crash. Note - the system will not prevent air crashes, but will allow us to know more quickly where a missing plane crashed.
Weird. It's almost as if there might be another reason for a multi-billion dollar satellite system.
I wonder if the money could be better spent saving lives through...building quality, healthcare, road safety (how many Chinese die on the roads each year compared to those on rare air crashes - more than 40,000???), mine safety, even improving safety checks on all global passenger aircraft...
bagelbagel
It is not a question of monitoring but a matter of tracking an airplane. There is technology in existence that allow tracking as well as technology that prevent the transponder being switched off.
guy.pant
Unclear if surveillance satellites (and to some degree Beidou) will take priority over other satellite development resources as development and growing applications of global communication satellites have been at the forefront of aviation (especially after the MH370 event), etc. Then again, countries like the EU and the U.S. already have the largest fleet of surveillance and GPS satellites so focus could easily turn to comm satellites.
Dai Muff
Yeah sure, they want it to search for lost airliners .... which has almost never happened before and may not do so for the next twenty years either.
Meanwhile, people in some regions have no hospitals and no schools and can't even get food they can trust, while China asks people overseas to educate its children out of charity.
m2leung
It's great to know that China have finally learn from the West on how to exploit unfortunate situations such as this. This is pretty much what the USA did after 9/11. It gave them grounds to collect and provide surveillance over tons of data.
xgambit
Good project. Money well spend
clc2
Objects in space emitting data can be spotted and counted. That may be a "state secret" but only from the particular country's general public paying for them.
aplucky1
forgot schools for the poor provinces
food for the poor
adequate roads
this is definitely the right choice !

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