China’s spy satellite snoops US Navy’s Norfolk naval station

The Chinese have recently managed to photograph an important US naval base using an advanced satellite. These pictures, which were first posted on China’s native social media platform, Weibo, were reportedly taken by the Taijin-4 03, known as a “flat-plate radar imaging satellite”Defense experts believe the pictures are of the Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia. 

China's spy satellite snoops US Navy's Norfolk naval station
Photo credit: Twitter

The radar snapshots reveal three aircraft carriers and appear to include two ships from the Arleigh Burke-class. However, it is unknown what the other four ships depicted in the picture are. 

Naval Station Norfolk, situated on the east coast of the US, is an integral naval base. It plays a key role in dispatching power and support across the Atlantic Ocean. Not only does it house the Military Sealift Command and the submarines of the Atlantic Fleet, but it is also the largest naval base globally. With 14 piers and 11 aircraft hangars, it can accommodate up to 75 ships and 134 aircraft.

China's spy satellite snoops US Navy's Norfolk naval station
Photo credit: Twitter

Mapping the stars

The Taijing-4 03 is a top-tier commercial satellite from China, equipped with phased-array radar imaging in the Ku band. It’s one of the integral Taijing series satellites that have significantly advanced China’s remote sensing capabilities. This satellite contributes to a range of services, including disaster and environmental tracking, resource exploration, predicting crop yields, and mapping land and sea. 

Interestingly, the Taijing-4 03 bears the logo of Mino Space, a private Chinese firm, suggesting they built the satellite. Upon the satellite’s readiness for operation, the company released its images as marketing material on various Chinese media outlets. 

China's spy satellite snoops US Navy's Norfolk naval station
Photo credit: Twitter

According to CGTN, the Taijing-4 03 is one of five satellites that make up an impressive constellation. It was designed specifically for tasks like scientific exploration, space probes, and environmental surveys. Together with Taijing-1 03, Taijing-2 02, and Taijing-3 02, it was successfully launched on January 23 of this year. The launch occurred at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, using the commercial carrier rocket, Lijian-1 Y3. 

The Global Times reports that the Taijing-4 03 is equipped with a synthetic aperture radar and artificial intelligence processors. These advanced features allow it to quickly locate and identify targets in marine environments and airports, aided by real-time image transmission.

Modern warfare

16 Russian satellites embark on a mission for maritime oversight
Photo credit: Roscosmos

Synthetic Aperture Radars [SARs] are incredibly useful in the military. They provide round-the-clock imaging of land and sea areas, identifying any enemy activities or weaponry. This means that the Chinese military could use the Taijing-4 03 satellite during a conflict, either for targeting a US naval base or just for general Earth observation during system tests. 

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army [PLA] has numerous dedicated military satellites and surveillance tools that can detect an approaching naval fleet days before it reaches Chinese waters. However, having the ability to closely monitor a US naval base provides them with a more thorough overview of US warships’ readiness and firepower. They could potentially combine this with other intelligence sources and assessments to keep track of activities within US military bases and inform their strategic plans. 

In January, satellite images revealed that China had constructed a mock-up of the US Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, for target practice. This suggests that the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] is intensifying its focus on combating US aircraft carriers and other frontline vessels. These replicas recreate real-life scenarios, aiding in the collection of precise data during testing.

The launch of a Chinese rocket with an Indonesian satellite failed
Photo credit: CCTV

Space race dynamics 

The competition between the US and China in private space exploration is intensifying. It’s not just about who can reach farther into the cosmos, it also mirrors the broader competition between the two countries in military, technology, and politics. A similar narrative is taking shape in China, with several private space technology firms making their mark in Beijing. These companies pose a real challenge, much as their US counterparts, SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin, do. 

The aim here is to establish a space infrastructure that operates independently of national government space agencies like NASA and CNSA. In the long run, this could pave the way for more frequent trips to the Moon and Mars. According to Chinese market research firm iiMedia, China’s commercial space market was worth over 1 trillion yuan in 2020 and is predicted to reach around 2.3 trillion yuan by 2024. 

China's spy satellite snoops US Navy's Norfolk naval station
Photo credit: CAS

A prime example is the privately developed Lijian-1 rocket. This colossal rocket, a joint venture between the Institute of Mechanics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences [CAS] and CAS Space, can carry 1,500 kg into a sun-synchronous orbit 500 kilometers above Earth. Since its first flight in July 2022, the Lijian-1 rocket has successfully launched 37 satellites and boasts a 100% success rate. This marked the rocket’s third successful mission.

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