Chinese Press Cyber Attacks, Elint Satellite Development

China’s massive DFH-4 geosynchronous orbit (GEO) bus is fitted with antennas. U. S. intelligence believes China already operates elint antennas in GEO on DFH-4s or other spacecraft. Photo Credit: CAST

Two high priority NASA Earth-observing spacecraft came under Chinese cyber attack several times in 2007 and 2008, according to information released by the U. S. Air Force to the U. S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. 

In another example of China milspace development a new “AsiaEye” study said China is accelerating development of electronic intelligence (elint) spacecraft to counter traditional U. S. military dominance of the Pacific. 

The cyber attack information is used in a draft report by the China Commission that is about to report to Congress on China’s cyber warfare capabilities. The Air Force Information was likely assessed at the USAF Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio.

The U.S. Air Force said that the NASA spacecraft that were involved in the Chinese attacks are: 

—Landsat 7: According to the Air Force, the civilian Earth imaging spacecraft experienced at least 12 min. of Chinese interference on Oct. 20, 2007 and another 12 min. of interference on July 23, 2008. 

—Terra AM Earth Observing Satellite:  According to the Air Force the Terra AM spacecraft experienced at least 2 min. of Chinese interference on June 20, 2008, and on Oct. 22, 2008 the Terra came under cyber attack again for at least 9 minutes. 

The draft report says China “achieved all steps required to command the satellite but did not issue commands.”


The Landsat 7 spacecraft is prepared before its 1999 launch from Vandenberg AFB, CA. It was cyber attacked by China in 2007 and 2008. Photo Credit: NASA


But a detailed review by AmericaSpace of the final version of the report from the Commission apparently does not mention the NASA attacks, raised as significant by the Air Force to the Commission.  The final report will be submitted to Congress Nov. 16 which may question why the attacks on NASA spacecraft seems to be missing from the final version. 

Without specifically mentioning China, NASA confirmed that something unusual happened to Terra, but would not comment on Landsat 7 that is managed in orbit by the U. S. Geological Survey. 

Chinese hackers apparently infiltrated the Svalbard Satellite Station a commercially operated ground station in Spitsbergen, Norway to gain access to the satellites, the draft report said. 

“SvalSat relies on the Internet for data access and file transfers,” the Commission draft said, citing a recent NASA report. 

The SvalSat site was singled out by NASA for its importance as part of the new NASA NPP mission launched Oct. 28 to demonstrate advanced weather and climate instrumentation that could be used in a new U. S. polar orbiting system. 

The Commission’s final report does cite Chinese cyber attacks against the NASA Kennedy Space Center and Goddard Space Flight Center. At Kennedy the Chinese intrusions managed to steal space shuttle operational details, including main engine data, the Commission found. 

The major ground based Chinese cyber actions are in line with growing Chinese deployment of electronic intelligence satellites that can eavesdrop on U. S. ground facilities or other spacecraft. 

Elint spacecraft development has even been part of China’s manned space program which is about to launch the unmanned Shenzhou 8 for a docking with the Tiangong 1 module. Shenzhou 8’s booster was rolled to its launch pad during late October.


Graphic depicts active elint array flown for six months in space on the orbital module of the Chinese Shenzhou 3 spacecraft. Photo Credit:

Unmanned test of the Shenzhou 3 spacecraft carried a large forward antenna arrays that looked exactly like how elint antennas are arranged to identify different signals. And I myself examined a similar elint array mounted on the nose of an engineering version of the Shenzhou during a 2001 visit to a major space hardware plant in Shanghai. Engineers there refused all comment on the antenna structure. 

In Japan recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticized China for the secretive expansion of its military power. 

“China is rapidly modernizing its military,” he wrote in a Japanese newspaper, “but with a troubling lack of transparency, coupled with increasingly assertive activity in the East and South China Seas.” 

China’s military budget of $95 billion this year is the world’s second-highest after Washington’s planned $650 billion. Beijing is developing weapons such as the DF- 21 Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile that analysts say will threaten U.S. warships and alter the regional balance of power.  The DF-21D is being tested with an array of space sensor support. 

According to U. S. Pacific Command it is being designed to force U. S.  Navy aircraft carrier battle groups and other large U. S. allied warships to operate hundreds of miles further away from China or North Korea than they do today. 

At least 3-4 different Chinese military satellite systems are being networked to support the 1,500 km+ range DF-21D, say U. S. analysts. 

“This concerted effort has been driven by the desire for an ability to use force against Taiwan decisively and in a manner that precludes U.S. and other foreign intervention,” according to China scholars Ian Easton and Mark Stokes of the Project 2049 Institute. The Arlington Va. institute is a think tank devoted to Chinese policy issues that will affect the U. S. Asia and Europe. 

China has begun deploying a robust network of ELINT and imagery satellites in order to locate and track large warships, mobile air defense systems, and other critical defense systems. 

“In addition, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) appears to have a distinct organizational structure for managing and satisfying its space-based surveillance architecture, and in particular its ELINT program,” said an “AsiaEye” study by Easton and Stokes. 

“Many unknowns remain, but it is probable that China has now deployed at least two different ELINT gathering satellite constellations, one comprised of two and another comprised of three co-orbital satellites in LEO.  Strong indications exist that these dedicated ELINT platforms are augmented by ELINT sensors piggybacked on other satellites platforms in LEO, and perhaps in GEO, “said Easton and Stokes.

Technical writings suggest that China is committed to expanding its SIGINT/ELINT capabilities in GEO. These evolving capabilities are likely to greatly improve the PLA’s ability to track and target moving (American) carrier strike groups and undermine regional air defense systems in the coming years, the AsiaEye report said. 

Chinese literature suggests a substantial amount of resources has been dedicated to its evolving space-based ELINT capabilities, and operational tests of a system linking those assets to a ground-based network for the targeting of terrestrial targets have been tested successfully. 

The bulk of Chinese sources discussing ELINT satellites link them to the broader maritime surveillance mission, and specifically to the DF-21D system. 

“As such, China’s ELINT satellite program appears well-placed to strengthen China’s asymmetric regional aerospace campaign strategies, complicating the ability of the United States and allies to conduct air and maritime operations in the West Pacific,” concludes the AsiaEye study.  

Author’s Backgrounder

Craig Covault has traveled extensively in China to visit Long March assembly plants in Beijing and Shanghai. He has also visited the Xichang launch site, along with satellite research and productions centers in Shanghai, Beijing and Xian. He has also visited the Satellite Mission Control Facility in Xian where he was given access to a Chinese film return reconnaissance satellite and its cameras.  Covault broke the 2007 story of China’s first ASAT test against one of its own weather satellites which made front page headlines around the world and spawned major new U. S. Defense Dept. and Congressional space policy actions.


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