Saturday, February 5, 2011


The test of anti-satellite technology is believed to be the first of its kind in two decades by any nation and raised concerns about the vulnerability of U.S. satellites and a possible arms race in space.

China's action drew sharp protests from other nations with satellite programs -- a predictable response that experts said dramatically illustrates Chinese willingness to face broad international criticism when it comes to space, which Beijing considers a key part of the push to modernize its military and increase its ability to compete in high-tech warfare.

"The U.S. believes China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said yesterday. "We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese."

A spokesman at the Chinese Embassy said that he had no information about the anti-satellite test. The Chinese military did not mention the test either. But a Chinese newspaper that concentrates on foreign affairs, Global Times, relayed the reports from Washington in today's editions. The newspaper quoted Maj. Gen. Peng Guangquin as saying that the U.S. government was making too much of the test.

In addition to introducing a renewed military dimension to space, the destruction of the Chinese satellite created a large "debris cloud" that can seriously damage other satellites in nearby orbit, and possibly even spacecraft on their way to the moon or beyond. Analysts said that based on computer models, as many as 300,000 pieces of debris may have been created. While many would be very small, they said, hundreds would be large enough to create potentially serious problems.

The United States and the Soviet Union tested anti-satellite technology in the 1980s, and the United States shot down one of its orbiting satellites in 1985. Partially as a result of the debris problem, both sides stopped the programs.

The Chinese test, first reported online by the magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology, comes at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China over space. China is leading an effort in the United Nations to set up an international conference to address what many consider to be an imminent space arms race. The United States has opposed the idea, arguing that it is not needed because there is no arms race in space. The Bush administration nevertheless released an updated national space policy last fall that strongly asserted an American right to defend itself in space against any actions it considers hostile.

The U.S. military is especially dependent on satellites for navigation, communications and missile guidance, while the American economy could also be broadly damaged by disruptions of communications, weather and other satellites. Some in the administration believe that this has left the nation especially vulnerable to attack and have proposed efforts to develop ways to defend its assets in space.

The day the test was conducted, the chiefs of major U.S. intelligence agencies presented their annual threat assessments to Congress. Neither China's anti-satellite program nor its general push toward space weapons was mentioned during the public hearing or anywhere in the written testimonies of the director of national intelligence, the director of the Pentagon's intelligence agency or the CIA director.

The United States retains the ability to destroy low-orbit satellites and has been conducting research on more advanced systems for years.

Officials who have been briefed on the test said that the Chinese ballistic missile reached as high as some U.S. spy satellites are positioned. Other satellites positioned at the same altitude are part of the missile defense network that the U.S. military is assembling. Sources said a hit-to-destroy ballistic missile could knock out any satellites at that low orbit. Many sensitive communications satellites are much higher, at about 22,000 miles above Earth, and officials said yesterday that the recent test does not prove that China has the capability to disrupt those systems. Still, U.S. intelligence officers and administration officials fretted.

For the second time in three years, China has shot down one of its dysfunctional satellites with a missile, US-based Foreign Policy magazine reported in its latest issue.

The destruction of the satellite, which reportedly happened in January, shows China's defensive missile ability, the magazine said.

China's Ministry of National Defense has yet to comment on the report.

The reported firing took place at almost the same time as a successful missile interception test that China conducted on Jan 11.

The website of Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV said the anti-satellite missile test, if confirmed, is likely related to the missile interception test, which occurred at the peak of a dispute between Beijing and Washington on a massive US arms sales deal to Taiwan.

During the interception test, US agencies spotted two missiles launched from two locations from the Chinese mainland, colliding outside the atmosphere, a Pentagon spokesperson said.

China's Foreign Ministry then said the interception test was defensive in nature and was not targeting any country.

Many military scholars believe it was targeting the Patriot missile defense system that Taiwan was trying to buy from the US at that time.

China's first anti-satellite missile test was conducted successfully on Jan 11, 2007, destroying an abandoned Chinese satellite.

The Foreign Policy article did not reveal any other details of the move or any response from the US government.

Chinese military experts even warned that Washington appeared determined to surround China with US-build anti-missile systems.

However, Peng Guangqian, a Beijing-based military expert, said the newly reported anti-satellite missile test was not necessarily related to the US arms deal with Taiwan.

"It was a large test which needs time to prepare for," he said.

"If confirmed, I think it was a further step for China to improve its defensive ability in space."

Peng also said that China has long advocated the principle of a nonmilitary outer space, on which the US has long kept silent.

Lobbed into space atop a ballistic missile, the ASAT destroyed the weather-watching satellite that had been orbiting Earth since May 10, 1999 [image]. The result was littering Earth orbit with hundreds upon hundreds of various sizes of shrapnel.

Debris cloud

NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office at the Johnson Space Center is now at liberty to discuss the characteristics and consequences of the debris cloud created by the fragmentation of the Fengyun-1C spacecraft.

As of today, the U.S. military's Space Surveillance Network has cataloged nearly 600 debris fragments, according to NASA's Nicholas Johnson, Chief Scientist for Orbital Debrisat the space agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

However, more than 300 additional fragments are also being tracked, bringing it to a total of more than 900 bits of clutter. "These will be cataloged in due course," Johnson added.

"The total count of tracked objects could go even higher. Based upon the mass of Fengyun-1C and the conditions of the breakup, the standard NASA model for estimating the number of objects greater than 4 inches (10 centimeters) in size predicts a total about 950 such debris," Johnson advised

Most prolific and serious fragmentation

Johnson said that the debris cloud extends from less than 125 miles (200 kilometers) to more than 2,292 miles (3,850 kilometers), encompassing all of low Earth orbit. The majority of the debris have mean altitudes of 528 miles (850 kilometers) or greater, "which means most will be very long-lived," he said.

The number of smaller orbital debris from this breakup is much higher than the 900-plus being tracked. NASA estimates that the number of debris larger than 1 centimeter is greater than 35,000 bits of riff-raff.

"Any of these debris has the potential for seriously disrupting or terminating the mission of operational spacecraft in low Earth orbit," Johnson pointed out. "This satellite breakup represents the most prolific and serious fragmentation in the course of 50 years of space operations," he said.

Also put in harm's way by the rain of junk from the Chinese ASAT test is the International Space Station (ISS).

"The collision risk between the Fengyun-1C debris cloud and the International Space Station peaked shortly after the breakup and has been declining since. The risk of collisions between ISS and hazardous objects in Earth orbit is now once again dominated by the background debris population existing prior to the breakup of Fengyun-1C," Johnson said.

Collision of coincidences

Last year's signing by U.S. President George W. Bush of a new U.S. National Space Policy addressed the topic of orbital debris. The document flagged the progress made both nationally and internationally regarding proliferation of orbital debris over the past decade - but also underscored the worrisome nature of space junk.

"Orbital debris poses a risk to continued reliable use of space-based services and operations and to the safety of persons and property in space and on Earth," the White House document stated. "The United States shall seek to minimize the creation of orbital debris by government and non-government operations in space in order to preserve the space environment for future generations."

In a collision of coincidences, the 25th meeting of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) is slated for April 23-26 and is hosted by the China National Space Administration. The meeting is to be held at the China Academy of Space Technology in Beijing.

IADC is an international governmental forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to the issues of human-made and natural debris in space.

Also, reactions spurred by China's ASAT actions are sure to surface later this month at a meeting of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna.

On the UN agenda is the potential approval of draft Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines that were hammered out last year.