A satellite captured China's first aircraft carrier sailing off China's coast on the Yellow sea on Thursday. It is believed that this is the first time the 300-metre aircraft carrier has been photographed at sea since it was launched in August.
The satellite that captured the image is owned by a commercial U.S. satellite company.
CNN reports the Varyag aircraft carrier image was taken while it was on its second sea trial in the Yellow Sea on December 8, 2011. The location is approximately 100 kilometers south-southeast .
Since China's plan to build and equip an aircraft carrier was known, there has been considerable international interest because of the use that a country with increasing military power and influence in its region may put an aircraft carrier to. The Chinese had said little about it in the midst of speculations while it was being built. Daily Mail reports that Bonnie Glaser, an expert in Chinese affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, "It wasn't until the Chinese actually announced they were sending it out on a trial run they admitted, 'Yes, we are actually launching a carrier.'"
China purchased the ship from Ukraine in 1998 and spent several years refurbishing it. The carrier was bought without engines, weaponry or navigation systems.
The Guardian reports the image was found on Tuesday by a private company called DigitalGlobe analysts while its analysts searched through satellite photos. Stephen Wood, director of DigitalGlobe's analysis center, said he was sure it was the Chinese aircraft carrier captured in the photograph because of the location and date of the photo.
China has tried to allay fears about its intentions by saying that the carrier is meant entirely for research and training. Western analysts interpret that to mean that China intends to build copies of the carrier in the future. CNN reports that the observation from the image that the carrier lacks surface-to-surface missiles and other air defense systems suggests the intention is to use it as a training vehicle.
The carrier had its origins in Soviet Russia. The Russians who called the ship Varyag, had started building it but never finished it. After the Soviet Union collapsed the Ukrainians took over the ship. They later sold it to the Chinese.
A U.S. Defense Department report to Congress this year said the carrier could become available to the Chinese navy by the end of next year but it would not yet have aircraft. A U.S. expert said it may take several years before the carrier acquires a viable air group.