China is developing a dual-purpose laser-equipped low-Earth orbit satellite. The program was launched earlier this year, is aimed at increasing Chinese surveillance of maritime traffic and unparallel anti-submarine warfare detection in the world’s oceans.
Project Guanlan, meaning “watching the big waves,” was launched in May at the Pilot National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology in Qingdao, a city in eastern Shandong Province on the east coast of China, said South China Morning Post.
It is an ambitious project that the US and Russia have failed to acquire fully. China aims to boost its surveillance activities in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan, and the Phillippine Sea, according to the laboratory’s website.
Researchers are currently working on the satellite’s design at the laboratory, but its lasers and internal components are being developed by 20 research institutes and universities across the country.
Song Xiaoquan, a researcher involved in the project, said if the program is successful, it will enable China to surveil the upper layer of the Ocean.
“It will change almost everything,” Song said.
For several decades, countries around the world have been trying to develop a device to detect submarines using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology. Both the US and Russia have tools that can recognize submarines 300 feet below the surface of the sea. But this is not enough, as most superpowers have subs that operate at depths of 1,600 feet.
Recently, NASA and Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency funded projects that could see submarines up to 600 feet below the surface — but still nowhere close to the 1600 feet target zone.
Lasers that penetrate 1,600 feet depth remain a pipedream for major superpowers. China is attempting to realize this dream.
Once Project Guanlan’s laser components are assembled. A pilot test of the device could be mounted on a spy plane as well as surveillance satellites.
Shooting a laser beam from space has been difficult as the beam tends to degrade in the atmosphere and various layers of the ocean. Sunrays do not go more than 600 feet deep in the oceanic water.
Once completed, Project Guanlan could be manufactured by the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shaanxi province.
Zhang Tinglu, another fellow researcher, involved in the project, said the primary obstacle for the satellite was the thermocline, a thin layer of water where the temperature changes abruptly, which degrades the effectiveness of the laser.
Tinglu declined to elaborate on the future of the satellite but noted that thermocline is known to be important for submarine captains because it can reflect active sonar and other acoustic signals. That means a sub could potentially avoid detection in the thermocline, but not by a laser beam.
Song, Tinglu, and or the lab did not give the South China Morning Post any indication as to when the laser will be completed. Song did say the team has been under pressure. “There’s still heaps of problems that we need to solve,” he added.
Since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, China has been investing heavily in military hardware, including anti-submarine technology, as it militarizes the South China Sea.
With the possible development of Chinese lasers in low-Earth orbit detecting American and allied subs in oceanic waters could be a game-changer in geo-strategic one-upmanship competition as the new Cold War between US-China is a major theme for 2020 and beyond.