|Aviation Week & Space Technology
05/12/2008 , page 34
A U.S. supercomputer like those used at research facilities such as Los Alamos National Laboratory will be used by the Chinese to operate a new generation of Fengyun weather satellites to be launched as early as this month. There are military implications, however, for China’s use of this powerful Silicon Graphics Inc. computing capability.
The advanced weather satellite system will be employed heavily by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as well as civilian weather outlets. The Chinese have developed their own software codes to run in the SGI system.
The situation illustrates how legal technology transfers between the U.S. and China can also greatly enhance Chinese military capabilities.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a global security watchdog, notes that SGI’s supercomputer sales to China have raised concerns in the U.S. Commerce and State departments in the past. As a result, there are now stricter rules under which SGI and other companies can make such sales.
U.S. software is also at the heart of a computer-aided design system being used by the Chinese to develop new oxygen/kerosene and oxygen/hydrogen rocket engines for the new Long March 5 line. The booster, which is expected to make its initial flights around 2010, will be comparable to the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles.
Chinese engineers are using U.S.-developed EDS Unigraphics CAD/CAM software to improve the new engine designs. Company managers say procurement of their hardware or software by the Chinese complies with strict technology transfer laws.
The weather satellite’s supercomputer configuration uses an SGI Altix system powered by 1,280 Intel Itanium 2 processor cores with 4 terabytes of shared memory.
The Chinese integrated this basic supercomputer with a 26-terabyte SGI InfiniteStorage system and the SGI Shared FileSystem. The resulting system ranks as the largest shared-memory computer in China and the fourth fastest in the country. The computing complex is based at the Chinese National Satellite Meteorological Center (NSMC) in Beijing.
“China continues a systematic effort to obtain . . . through legal transactions dual-use and military technologies,” according to the Pentagon’s 2008 report on China’s military power.
“Many dual-use technologies such as software, integrated circuits, computers, electronics and [security-related] information systems are vital for the PLA’s transformation into an information-based network-centric force,” the document states.
Rapid dissemination of high-resolution weather satellite imagery and data qualifies as one of the most fundamental areas of time-critical information needed for all aspects of military training and other operations.
The new spacecraft, comparable to mid-1990s versions of the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite System (DMSP) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration polar orbiters, will use the Altix supercomputer to generate the high-volume weather data. Similar Altix devices are key computing elements at the NASA Goddard and Ames centers, as well as at the Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national laboratories. They provide computational capabilities important to programs involved with U.S. science and technological leadership—a capability now shared with the Chinese.
“The inherent dual-use nature of space technologies means that China’s improving space capabilities could be used against the U.S. military,” says a new U.S. Army report on Chinese military technology.
The first of the 2.5-ton Fengyun-3 (FY-3) polar-orbit weather satellites is planned for launch on a Long March 4B from the Taiyuan launch site south of Beijing as early as late May. The goal is to support weather forecasting for the Olympic Games beginning in August, say Chinese managers. But the system will also play an important role in providing data to the increasingly modern Chinese air, sea and land forces under the PLA.
The Fengyun-3 class of weather satellites, built by the Shanghai Space Bureau, will carry 11 sensors. The first of the FY-3 series is under final checkout for launch. The new spacecraft look similar to the NASA Terra satellite with a single large side-mounted solar array.
Ironically, an older FY-1 polar-orbit weather satellite was destroyed by China’s antisatellite weapons test in January 2007. The new FY-3 series is designed to hone in and provide weather data on areas as small as 250 meters (820 ft.) across. This capability will be vital to the Chinese army, just as DMSP data are used by U.S. military forces.
The U.S. Army Institute report notes that “China’s space program is a military-civilian joint venture in which the military develops and operates its satellites and runs its infrastructure.” The institute adds that “the Chinese boast that FY-3 will reach higher technical standards than the U.S. NOAA-15 satellite—a spacecraft launched in 1998.”