China refutes U.S. claim that it's pushing space 'arms race'

"Here I want to remind all of you of a fact that the U.S. publicly defines outer space as a new battlefield," a Chinese foreign minister said.

U.S. Air Force
  • A Chinese foreign minister refuted U.S. claims that China and Russia are developing space weaponry.
  • China and Russia have recently ramped up cooperation on space programs.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. has been skeptical of both nations, arguing that they're likely developing an array of space weapons.

Amid ongoing disarmament talks in Geneva, a Chinese foreign minister on Wednesday refuted U.S. accusations that China and Russia are advancing a space arms race by developing anti-satellite weapons and laser weapons.

"The Chinese side did not, and will not take part in an arms race in outer space of any form. Our stance remains unchanged," Chinese Foreign Minister Spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters.

"Here I want to remind all of you of a fact that the U.S. publicly defines outer space as a new battlefield. It has built an Outer Space Command and is building an outer space troop, and it plans to deploy laser weapons in outer space. Who is worsening the threat of weaponization and turning it into a battlefield? Who is threatening the security of outer space? I believe the answers are self-evident."

Geng said the U.S. has "publicly positioned outer space as a new battlefield," noting that the Trump administration plans to build a space force, and claiming that the American military seeks to place "laser weapons in outer space."

The remarks came in response to criticism from Assistant State Secretary of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Yleem Poblete, who on Tuesday asked how the U.S. could "trust Russian arms control efforts and their seriousness about preventing an arms race in outer space when they have touted the development and completion of a broad array of counter-space capabilities."

She also voiced skepticism about the trustworthiness of the two world powers:

"Similar to Russia, it is difficult to determine the truthfulness of China's concern about the prevention of an arms race in space and their support for space arms control when China:
  • continues to pursue military capabilities such as jammers and directed energy weapons;
  • when it openly emphasizes the need for offensive cyberspace capabilities;
  • when it demonstrates sophisticated on-orbit capabilities with the potential for dual-uses; and
  • when China has deployed an operational ground-based anti-satellite missile intended to target low-Earth-orbit satellites, with likely research on anti-satellite capabilities designed to threaten all orbits."

Geng denied these claims.

"The U.S. accusations against China are totally groundless. China will not accept them. If the U.S. side truly cares about the security of outer space, it should work with China and Russia and actively participate in the arms control process of outer space instead of doing the opposite."

U.S. concern over Russian and Chinese space weapons

In June 2018, China and Russia agreed to start cooperating on lunar and deep space exploration. That same month, the Trump administration announced its intent to create a space force. It's not hard to see how China and Russia are likely threatened by U.S. space capabilities. After all, America has more operating satellites than any other nation, has a sprawling global military presence that includes space ground stations, and has been rather outspoken about space being the battlefield of the future.

Likewise, U.S. military officials have been skeptical of Russia's and China's intentions in space. In February, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency made public a report that said both nations are likely developing an array of space weapons and anti-satellite weapons, including "jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based antisatellite missiles that can achieve a range of reversible to nonreversible effects."

​Peaceful cooperation in space

In recent decades, China has evolved into a leading international space power. As Frank A. Rose, a senior fellow for the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, recently laid out in his testimony before the House Committee on Science, China aims to:

  • assemble a lunar research station beginning in 2025,
  • perform a crewed Moon landing mission in 2036
  • establish and establish a Lunar Research and Development Base around 2050
  • send a mission to Jupiter around 2029.

Rose notes that these projects "present multiple opportunities for international collaboration and partnership."

"However, as this committee knows well, one of the key challenges to actively engaging China in more robust civil space cooperation is the fact that the Chinese civil space program is controlled by the Chinese military," Rose said. "Therefore, there is a real possibility that any bilateral cooperation could contribute to China's military space programs. In addition to its anti-satellite programs, China is also improving its space-based military reconnaissance, remote sensing capabilities, and communications capabilities."

But that's not to say there's no way the U.S. and China could find a way to peacefully collaborate in space. There's historical precedent for such cooperation, too, as Rose points out: The U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to an Apollo-Soyuz docking mission amid the Cold War in 1975.

"Some feared that this mission would compromise the U.S. space program while providing further rewards to the Soviet program," Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center wrote. "These anxieties proved to be overdrawn…The Apollo-Soyuz mission established practices of cooperation in space between Washington and Moscow that continue to this day on the international space station."

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Snapshot of new simulation of supermassive black-hole formation

Image source: Sunmyon Chon/National Institutes Of Natural Sciences, Japan
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  • A new theory takes the direct-collapse theory explaining the creation of supermassive black holes around which galaxies turn ones step further.
  • The advance is made possible by a super-powerful computer, ATERUI II.
  • The new theory is the first that accounts for the likely assortment of heavy elements in early-universe gas clouds.

It seems that pretty much every galaxy we see is spinning around a supermassive black hole. When we say "supermassive," we mean BIG: Each is about 100,000 to tens of billions times the mass of our Sun. Serving as the loci around which our galaxies twirl, they're clearly important to maintaining the universal structures we see. It would be nice to know how they form. We have a pretty good idea how normally-huge-but-not-massive black holes form, but as for the supermassive larger versions, not so much. It's a supermassive missing piece of the universe puzzle.

Now, in research published in Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society, astrophysicists at Tohoku University in Japan reveal that they may have solved the riddle, supported by new computer simulations that show how supermassive black holes come to be.

The direct collapse theories

Glowing gas and dark dust within the Large Magellanic Cloud

Image source: ESA/Hubble and NASA

The favored theory about the birth of supermassive black holes up to now has been the "direct-collapse" theory. The theory proposes a solution to a cosmic riddle: Supermassive black holes seem to have been born a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang, not nearly long enough for the standard normal black hole genesis scenario to have played out, and on such a large scale. There are two versions of the direct-collapse theory.

One version proposes that if enough gas comes together in a supermassive gravitationally bound cloud, it can eventually collapse into a black hole, which, thanks the cosmic background-radiation-free nature of the very early universe, could then quickly pull in enough matter to go supermassive in a relatively short period of time.

According to astrophysicist Shantanu Basu of Western University in London, Ontario, this would only have been possible in the first 800 million years or so of the universe. "The black holes are formed over a duration of only about 150 million years and grow rapidly during this time," Basu told Live Science in the summer of 2019. "The ones that form in the early part of the 150-million-year time window can increase their mass by a factor of 10 thousand." Basu was lead author of research published last summer in Astrophysical Journal Letters that presented computer models showing this version of direct-collapse is possible.

Another version of the theory suggests that the giant gas cloud collapses into a supermassive star first, which then collapses into a black hole, which then — presumably again thanks to the state of the early universe — sucks up enough matter to go supermassive quickly.

There's a problem with either direct-collapse theory, however, beyond its relatively narrow time window. Previous models show it working only with pristine gas clouds comprised of hydrogen and helium. Other, heavier elements — carbon and oxygen, for example — break the models, causing the giant gas cloud to break up into smaller gas clouds that eventually form separate stars, end of story. No supermassive black hole, and not even a supermassive star for the second flavor of the direct-collapse theory.

A new model

ATERUI II

Image source: NAOJ

Japan's National Astronomical Observatory has a supercomputer named "ATERUI II" that was commissioned in 2018. The Tohoku University research team, led by postdoctoral fellow Sunmyon Chon, used ATERUI II to run high-resolution, 3D, long-term simulations to verify a new version of the direct-collapse idea that makes sense even with gas clouds containing heavy elements.

Chon and his team propose that, yes, supermassive gas clouds with heavy elements do break up into smaller gas clouds that wind up forming smaller stars. However, they assert that's not the end of the story.

The scientists say that post-explosion, there remains a tremendous inward pull toward the center of the ex-cloud that drags in all those smaller stars, eventually causing them to grow into a single supermassive star, 10,000 times larger than the Sun. This is a star big enough to produce the supermassive black holes we see when it finally collapses in on itself.

"This is the first time that we have shown the formation of such a large black hole precursor in clouds enriched in heavy-elements," says Chon, adding, "We believe that the giant star thus formed will continue to grow and evolve into a giant black hole."

Modeling the behavior of an expanded number of elements within the cloud while faithfully carrying forward those models through the violent breakup of the cloud and its aftermath requires such high computational overhead that only a computer as advanced as ATERUI II could pull off.

Being able to develop a theory that takes into account, for the first time, the likely complexity of early-universe gas clouds makes the Tohoku University idea the most complete, plausible explanation of the universe's mysterious supermassive black holes. Kazuyuki Omukai, also of Tohoku University says, "Our new model is able to explain the origin of more black holes than the previous studies, and this result leads to a unified understanding of the origin of supermassive black holes."

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