China science

The hidden man fuelling China’s military ambitions: Xiang Libin honoured for work on ‘super camera’ to aid spy satellites

Latest breakthrough means China may now be able to track missile launch sites and other targets even if they are camouflaged or hidden underground

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 January, 2016, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

A scientist who specialises in optics and has been developing a “super camera” for use in reconnaissance satellites has pocketed China’s top science award for his latest technological breakthrough, hinting at how formidable the nation’s military is becoming and the measures taken to keep such developments under wraps.

Hyperspectral imaging expert Xiang Libin, 49, received the prestigious gong from President Xi Jinping during the annual national science and technology awards ceremony in Beijing on Friday.

During an official group photo session with state leaders, Professor Xiang was pictured in a prominent position behind Xi, hinting at the level of importance attached to his work.

This level of official recognition suggests China may have fully acquired the technology to locate and track military targets that are usually camouflaged or hidden underground, such as missile launch sites and testing facilities for nuclear weapons.

Due to the sensitivity of the research, however, Xiang’s name did not appear on the list of award recipients; neither were his efforts trumpeted with the usual pomp and ceremony preserved for patriotic milestones by China’s state-run media.

But Xiang, a former director at the Academy of Opto-Electronics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is well known among China’s optical research community for his pioneering works on hyperspectral imaging sensors. He now runs the Shanghai Engineering Centre for Microsatellites.

While traditional cameras can capture an object’s appearance, a hyperspectral camera is able to determine what the object is.

For example, a military spy satellite equipped with hyperspectral sensors would be able to tell the difference between a genuine and “counterfeit” fighter jet if they were parked side by side at an airport. In contrast, the two would appear identical to cameras that use optical, infrared or microwave rays, now matter how sharp the images they produce.

The hyperspectral imaging technology did the trick by examining the electromagnetic “fingerprint” of the target. The camera collected spectral data over a continuous range of electromagnetic bands for each pixel. The resulting data revealed the object’s true chemical composition and physical traits.

Now scientists claim that a military or government intelligence service could use such a satellite to search for any “object of interest” anywhere in the world. This could be a specific vehicle, a strategic missile launch site, camouflaged roadside bombs, or even nuclear-testing facilities hidden underground as they all have their own hyperspectral “fingerprint”.

Over the last decade, Yuan Yan, a professor of optical science at Beihang University in Beijing, has co-authored many research papers with Xiang on the theme of a hyperspectral imaging sensor for use in a satellite.

She confirmed to the South China Morning Post that Xiang was the man standing behind Xi in the aforementioned group photo.

But Yuan declined to provide more details on Xiang’s award-winning breakthrough.

“It is classified … for good reason,” she said.

Professor Sun Liqun, an optical scientist at Tsinghua University who has been involved in various military research projects, said Xiang was a figurehead in the field, even though he is little known outside of this small circle of people due to the sensitive nature of his work.

The use of hyperspectral technology by China’s military had been a closely guarded secret for years, but there is enough evidence to suggest the country embarked on this field of research relatively early, and apparently with the aim of overtaking the US by launching a new satellite this year.

The first-known camera of its kind deployed by the US Army was the Artemis system, according to its developer Raytheon Company. This was tested on the TacSat-3 satellite, which was launched in 2010, the major US defence contractor said.

The Artemis sensors can collect data on 300 electromagnetic bands, thus allowing its user, the US Strategic Command, to operate it for tactical purposes ranging from the detection of roadside bombs to the identification of nuclear weapon facilities.

But the system remains in an experimental stage as a number of technical problems, such as its low resolution, still unsolved.

Meanwhile, a civilian satellite that China plans to launch this year will be equipped with a more advanced hyperspectral camera than that linked to the Artemis, Chinese researchers said during an international conference held by the Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society in 2014.

The China Commercial Remote-sensing Satellite System (CCRSS) will be able to collect data on 328 bands offering very high resolution of up to 15 metres, according to the researchers from the Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth in Beijing. This means each pixel in the image measures 15 metres squared.

Hyperspectral research efforts have been going on in China for several decades, having begun at the start of the 1970s, the team said in a presentation.

The technology was tested extensively and improved over time on aircraft-based platforms, before researchers shifted their attention to devices in space.

The first satellite-based hyperspectral camera, called the CMODIS, was installed on Shenzhou-3, an unmanned spacecraft that China launched in 2002.

The camera was fairly primitive with just 34 spectral bands and resolution as low as 500 metres, but it was soon replaced as Chinese technology in this area developed at a fast clip.

By 2008 the small satellite constellation known as HJ-1 was able to scan 115 bands with resolution of 100 metres, according to the researchers.

But as these developments and sensors all took place in equipment destined for the civilian sector,many suspect the cameras used by China’s military can perform significantly better.

However, the hyperspectral imaging technology could theoretically be applied in a number of sectors including vegetation identification (agriculture), mineral detection and the assessment of polluted waters in oceans, coastal zones and inland waterways.

The technology could also be used for space exploration missions.

China has deployed a hyperspectral camera for use on previous lunar missions, during which it produced one of the largest and most detailed maps of mineral distribution on the surface of the moon to date.