China's small Beijing-3 satellite can take high-resolution images of US cities within seconds, a speed its American counterparts can't match, scientists say

China's small Beijing-3 satellite can take high-resolution images of US cities within seconds, a speed its American counterparts can't match, scientists say
·3 min read
Aerial shot of Golden Gate bridge in an early winter morning.
The Beijing-3 captured high-resolution images that could identify individual vehicles over the San Francisco Bay within seconds, Chinese scientists said.Darwin Fan/Getty Images
  • The Beijing-3 snapped hi-res images of a 1,470 square-mile area of the US in 42 seconds.

  • The satellite can rotate rapidly in orbit without compromising image quality, researchers said.

  • This unprecedented feat means China can scan large areas in a single sweep, all in high definition.

A small, one-ton Chinese satellite can quickly snap high-resolution images of US cities that are so detailed they can identify individual military vehicles and the weapons they carry, Chinese scientists involved in the Beijing-3 satellite project said on Tuesday.

The commercial Beijing-3 satellite, launched by China in June, conducted an in-depth scan of a 1,470 square-mile area in the San Francisco Bay. The satellite captured the area within 42 seconds, The South China Morning Post first reported, citing results published this month in the Chinese peer-reviewed journal Spacecraft Engineering.

Beijing-3 has a unique advantage up its sleeve: It can pitch and yaw at up to 10 degrees per second while not compromising image quality as it orbits the Earth, said lead scientist Yang Fang, who headed the project run by DFH Satellite Company under the Chinese Academy of Space and Technology.

Normally, satellite cameras have to be kept still when they take high-definition images, and thus can only observe straight strips of land as they orbit above the area. So they sometimes have to fly over a region multiple times to scan the whole area or work in tandem with other satellites.

The Beijing-3's maneuverability means it only needs a single sweep to observe entire regions, such as the 3,915 mile Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia, which winds from China's east coast to the western Tibetan plateau, the researchers said in a CCTV-13 broadcast segment.

If the Beijing-3 is equipped with artificial intelligence, it can potentially observe up to 500 areas around the world with up to 100 revisits a day, they added, The Post reported.

Still, the quality of the Beijing-3's imagery isn't sharp enough to rival American-developed satellites, such as the Worldview-4, which was built by Lockheed Martin and could capture images at a resolution of 12 inches per pixel.

Beijing-3 can snap images with a resolution of 20 inches per pixel at best. But its researchers said the Chinese satellite's response time is around two to three times faster than that of Worldview-4 — which was retired in 2019, less than three years after its 2016 launch, because of a failure in its stabilizing system.

The report on Beijing-3 comes amid rising concerns in the US that China's space technology is growing at a breakneck pace. Gen. David Thompson, the vice chief of space operations in the US Space Force, said earlier this month that China could overtake the US in space capabilities by 2030.

"The fact, that in essence, on average, they are building and fielding and updating their space capabilities at twice the rate we are means that very soon, if we don't start accelerating our development and delivery capabilities, they will exceed us," Thompson said, CNN reported.

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