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Space arms race: China develops laser weapon that could zap down satellites

Anonymous Chinese scientist says it is ‘overwhelming just to think about’

Artist's impression of a Direct Energy Weapon taking out a satellite in space. (Getty images)

Artist's impression of a Direct Energy Weapon taking out a satellite in space. (Getty images)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Researchers in China have developed a microwave machine that emits a pulse so strong it could potentially jam or destroy satellites in space.

Dubbed the “Relativistic Klystron Amplifier (RKA)”, the device can generate a wave burst measuring 5-megawatts in the Ka-band, a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum increasingly used for both civil and military purposes, per an Asia Times report. Although not powerful enough to shoot targets out of the sky from the ground, the RKA can be mounted onto satellites, which could then be used to attack enemy assets in space by burning out their sensitive electronics.

Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) are systems that use concentrated electromagnetic energy rather than kinetic energy to damage or destroy enemy equipment and/or personnel in a physical conflict.

Although China denies the RKA is a Directed Energy Weapon (DEW), if the system were built at scale, it could send beams strong enough to rip through metallic materials moving at speed. In fact, a Beijing-based space scientist told the media anonymously this tech could function as a high-powered weapon, saying its power was “overwhelming just to think about.”

Space is becoming an increasingly hotly contested geopolitical arena. This comes after recent revelations China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle that flew through low-orbit space in August last year, which some in Washington likened to a “new Sputnik moment.”

Responding to the news in November, Thomas Karako, senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the U.S. needs to deploy space-based sensors to counter the Chinese military’s new missiles. The next month, Space Force, an arm of the U.S. military, awarded Arizona-based GEOST a contract worth US$32 million (NT$883.84 million) for prototype space-based sensors in an effort to get more eyes "above the skies."

The recent conflict in Ukraine could also birth greater risk of conflict in space and endanger satellites. The collaboration Russia and Western countries enjoyed in space for decades may be ending fast with the Russian space director recently threatening Moscow might decline to correct the course of the International Space Station, which would bring it crashing down to earth. In addition, last year Russia destroyed one of its own legacy satellites which created mass debris in space.