China is developing a satellite with a powerful laser for anti-submarine warfare, according to Song Xiaoquan, a researcher involved in the project, cited by South China Morning Post (SCMP).
According to the outlet, China’s new satellite might become the “Death Star” for submarines. Researchers reportedly hope that the device will be able to pinpoint a target up to 500 meters below the water surface.
Aside from targeting submarines – most operate at a depth of less than 500 meters – it could also be used to collect data on the world’s oceans.
Project Guanlan, meaning “watching the big waves”, was officially launched in May at the Pilot National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology in Qingdao, Shandong. It aims to strengthen China’s surveillance activities in the world’s oceans, according to the laboratory’s website.
Scientists are working on the design in the laboratory, however its key components are being developed at more than 20 research institutes and universities across China. Song Xiaoquan, a researcher involved in the project, said if the team can develop the satellite as planned, it will make the upper layer of the sea “more or less transparent”.
“It will change almost everything,” Song said.
As reported by SCMP, light dims 1,000 times faster in water than in the air, and the sun can penetrate no more than 200 meters below the ocean surface, a powerful artificial laser beam can be 1 billion times brighter than the sun.
The project is very ambitious, since researchers have tried for more than 50 years to develop a laser spotlight that allows hunting submarines using technology known as light detection and ranging (lidar).
Lidar technology can be affected by the device’s power limitations, as well as cloud, fog, murky water – and even marine life such as fish and whales. Added to that, the laser beam deflects and scatters as it travels from one body of water to another, making it more of a challenge to get a precise calculation.
There are, of course, doubts if such a device is even possible. “Five hundred metres is ‘mission impossible’,” said a lidar scientist with the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is not involved in the project.
“They [project researchers] won’t be able to break through the darkness guarded by Mother Nature – unless of course they are Tom Cruise, armed with some secret weapons,” according to an unnamed researcher, cited by SCMP.
However, the government has agreed to fund the research, in part because the scientist team has come up with an approach that has not been tried before, according to an unnamed scientist involved in the project, cited by SCMP.
Once it has been developed, the laser device is likely to be made by the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shaanxi province. The institute gained attention recently for the lightweight laser weapons it is developing, particularly a device the size of an assault rifle that it claims can set fire to a target from nearly 1km away.
SCMP also reported that China has been investing heavily into military hardware, including anti-submarine technology, the J-20 fighter jet, which is to enter mass production soon, AI-controlled submarines, as well as its new aircraft carriers, one of which passed its maritime tests recently.
Last year, Chinese scientists claimed to have made a breakthrough in magnetic detection technology with a device that can monitor tiny disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by metallic objects such as submarines.
In January 2018, the SCMP reported that China has planted powerful listening devices in strategic seabeds near the American naval base in Guam and in the South China Sea, some of which can “hear” low-frequency sounds from more than 1,000km away.
At the national marine science lab in Qingdao, researchers are working on an exascale supercomputer called “Deep Blue Brain” that, when completed in 2020, aims to be the most powerful computer on the planet – about 1,000 times faster than the fastest computers today.