Israel launches new surveillance satellite

Israel launched the Ofek-9 (Horizon-9) satellite from the Palmachim Air Force base south of Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, the Defense Ministry announced. The launch was reportedly visible from Tel Aviv and the sea. The satellite and the rocket which launched it were reportedly developed by Israel Aircraft Industries.

Israel now has six satellites in space, of which three are in operation, according to news reports.

The Associated Press quoted an unnamed defense official as saying that these satellites “would give Israel considerable coverage of sensitive areas”.

Continue reading “Israel launches new surveillance satellite”

Experts call collision of orbiting US and Russian satellites "catastropic"

What more is there to say than this?

Apparently, there is only “little risk” to the international space station — not no risk, just a little one.

Remember the fuss about space debris when China deliberately shot down one of its “weather” satellites (apparently to try to focus attention on China’s belief that it is urgent to negotiate a new disarmament treaty? [See our earlier posts here, and here.]
Continue reading “Experts call collision of orbiting US and Russian satellites "catastropic"”

Rice: "We have a breakthrough document on missile defense for the Alliance"

In Bucharest today, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley indicated they were very pleased by the support they feel the U.S. has gotten from the NATO alliance for its missile defense proposals in Europe.

Rice told journalists: “…we have a breakthrough document on missile defense for the Alliance. Again, I remember going to that first summit, when I think the President talked about missile defense, and perhaps only two allies gave even lukewarm support for the notion of missile defense. But now it is clearly understood in the Alliance that the challenges of the 21st century, the threats of the 21st century make it necessary to have missile defense that can defend the countries of Europe; that this is important to NATO, and we will take that work ahead. The NATO allies also asked Russia to stop its criticism of the Alliance effort and to join in the cooperative efforts that have been offered to it by the United States”.

In the same briefing, Hadley told the press: “there has been, over 10 years, a real debate as to whether there is a ballistic missile threat. And I think that debate ended today, when, in the Alliance document there’s a recognize that it is a threat that threatens the Alliance. Secondly, there has been a debate as to whether what we are working on with the Polish — with Poland and the Czech Republic is part of, and accepted by NATO as part of, the defense, as a contribution to protecting NATO countries from missile defense. That also got answered today in the affirmative”.

The transcript of the remarks by Rice and Hadley was released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary, and received by email.

After the meetings, and the press briefing, the Associated Press reported, perhaps overly optimisitically, that “No matter how much Russia hates it, the U.S. now has a clear track to build its long-range missile defense system in Europe. The crucial go-ahead came Thursday from the Czech Republic, where a vital radar site would be located. NATO leaders added their unanimous backing for the idea at a European summit, all but sealing the controversial deal just before President Bush’s weekend meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin has harshly criticized the proposed system, portraying it as a threat to Russia, virtually on its doorstep. Beyond the immediate dispute, the Czech accord and the NATO endorsement marked an important moment in the long history of U.S. efforts to persuade allies of the merits of missile defense … The intent is to combine the U.S. system, which is meant to shoot down long-range missiles, with one run by NATO that could defend against shorter-range missiles that are more of a worry to countries like Turkey, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. Because of geography, they face a nearer-term threat from Iranian missiles … The Czech radar would be linked to a set of 10 interceptors that the U.S. wants to place in Poland. The Poles have not yet agreed. Poland has insisted on U.S. military aid as part of an agreement, and Bush recently indicated that was possible. The Pentagon wants to have the Polish and Czech sites in running order by about 2012 … The Czechs agreed to host an American radar that would be used to track the flight of missiles headed toward Europe from the Middle East. It would, in effect, be a set of eyes needed to guide missile interceptors to their target — long-range ballistic missiles of the sort Washington believes Iran is developing. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said a related question — whether the Russians would be allowed to station personnel at the site to monitor the radar’s use — was a matter that his government would handle alone.
The Czechs had been upset when the Bush administration, hoping to ease Russian opposition, initially floated the idea of allowing Russian monitors last fall. Schwarzenberg’s choice of words seemed to indicate some residual anger.
‘It is something which we will talk to the Russians about ourselves — not to be there as translators for the Americans’, he said. ‘It is entirely up to us’ … At their meeting scheduled for Sunday in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Bush and Putin are expected to agree that missile defense is one of many high-priority topics for their successors. But it appears unlikely that Putin, who steps down in May, will suddenly embrace a project he considers to be provocative … The Russians, despite their heated rhetoric, seem to have come to accept that they are unlikely to stop it the system. They said as much during talks last month in Moscow with Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who have been pushing a series of proposals intended to make the project more palatable for the Russians. But this does not mean Moscow’s misgivings will stop being an irritant in U.S.-Russian relations, nor does it guarantee that the defensive shield for Europe will be the answer to missile threats. After decades of development, at a cost exceeding $100 billion, the missile defense system now in place in America — mainly at bases in Alaska and California — is unproven and unpopular in Congress. It began as a way to stop long-range missiles launched in a doomsday scenario during the Cold War years when the United States and the Soviet Union targeted each other with thousands of nuclear missiles. Today’s is more modest, designed to stop a limited attack by North Korea”. This AP report can be read in full here .

Cautious update – satellite shoot-down reduces risk from hazardous chemical

Not 24 or even 48 hours after the satellite shoot-down by a (ballistic) missile fired from a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific some 130 miles up into space at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour, but days later, there is a qualified statement of success.

The AP reported that “The Pentagon said Monday it has a ‘high degree of confidence’ that the missile fired at a dead U.S. spy satellite in space destroyed the satellite’s fuel tank as planned. In its most definitive statement yet on the outcome of last Wednesday’s shootdown over the Pacific, the Pentagon said that based on debris analysis it is clear that the Navy missile destroyed the fuel tank, ‘reducing, if not eliminating, the risk to people on Earth from the hazardous chemical’. The tank had 1,000 pounds of hydrazine, a toxic substance that U.S. government officials believed posed a potential health hazard to humans if the satellite had descended to Earth on its own. The presence of the hydrazine was cited by U.S. officials as the main reason to shoot down the satellite — described as the size of a school bus — which would otherwise have fallen out of orbit on its own in early March … ‘By all accounts this was a successful mission’, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the Pentagon statement Monday. ‘From the debris analysis, we have a high degree of confidence the satellite’s fuel tank was destroyed and the hydrazine has been dissipated’. The Pentagon statement said a space operations center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is tracking fewer than 3,000 pieces of satellite debris, all smaller than a football”. This AP report is published here.

There has still been no reaction from Russia.

U.S. satellite shoot-down

Does he look nervous or bothered? He just had ten seconds to get it right — the relatively junior U.S. Naval Officer who launched the missile that apparently shot down a falling U.S. satellite.

The Defense Department photo caption reads: “U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Andrew Jackson activates a modified tactical Standard Missile-3 from the Combat Information Center of the USS Lake Erie as the ship operates in the Pacific Ocean, Feb. 20, 2008. The Aegis cruiser launched the missile at a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph over the Pacific Ocean”.

Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Hight

The New York Times later reported that “During a Pentagon news conference Thursday morning, General Cartwright rebuffed those who said the mission was, at least in part, organized to showcase American missile defense or anti-satellite capabilities. He said the missile itself had to be reconfigured from its task of tracking and hitting an adversary’s warhead to instead find a cold, tumbling satellite. ”This was a one-time modification’, General Cartwright said. Sensors from the American missile defense system were an important part of this mission, though, he said“. This NYTimes report is here.

Dept of Defense photo by U.S. Navy

The U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Christina Rocca, has sent out a statement today saying that “A network of land-, air-, sea- and spaced-based sensors confirms that the U.S. military intercepted a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite which was in its final orbits before entering the earth’s atmosphere. At approximately 10:26 p.m. EST today, a U.S. Navy AEGIS warship, the USS Lake Erie (CG-70), fired a single modified tactical Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) hitting the satellite approximately 247 kilometers (133 nautical miles) over the Pacific Ocean as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph. USS Decatur (DDG-73) and USS Russell (DDG-59) were also part of the task force. The objective was to rupture the fuel tank to dissipate the approximately 1,000 pounds (453 kg) of hydrazine, a hazardous fuel which could pose a danger to people on earth, before it entered into earth’s atmosphere. Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours. Due to the relatively low altitude of the satellite at the time of the engagement, debris will begin to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere immediately. Nearly all of the debris will burn up on reentry within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days. The Department of Defense will conduct a press briefing at 7 a.m. EST to provide further information related to the operation. The briefing can be viewed live on www.Defenselink.mil through the Pentagon Channel”. (The DOD briefing is archived on the website and can be re-played.) This statement was received by email.

After clicking on the link to hear the Pentagon briefing, I heard General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say that “This is a one-time type of event”.

(Just like Kosovo)

General Cartwright was referring mainly to modifications (mostly softwear, he said, associated with sensors, with weapons and the ship, as well as some wiring) made to the missiles and to the navel ships involved in this operation. “The technical degree of difficulty was significant”, General Cartwright said. “The consequence-management part of this…is critical”.

This is one of those moments when you can feel that the world has irretrievably changed.

another Defense Dept photo by U.S. Navy

The Associated Press reported that “Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Beijing was asking the U.S. to ‘provide to the international community necessary information and relevant data in a timely and prompt way’. And the overseas edition of People’s Daily excoriated Washington for opposing a recent Russian-Chinese proposal on demilitarizing space. ‘One cannot but worry for the future of space when a great nation with such a massive advantage in space military technology categorically refuses a measure to prevent the militarization of space’, the paper said”. This AP report is posted here.

China Hand took a brief break from his/her nearly-obsessive coverage of the Pakistani political scene on Wednesday (20 February) to discuss this then-impending satellite shoot-down. In a posting entitled The Drunken Old Guy’s Mind Isn’t Really on the Wine…Is the Pentagon Really Worried About the Hydrazine? So asks the Chinese Internet, China Hand wrote:
By questioning the Pentagon’s narrative, the Chinese want to undercut America’s pretensions to responsible and honest space power-hood that it has claimed with its prior notification and the relative transparency surrounding the planned shootdown. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. media campaign was carefully designed to draw invidious comparisons between Chicom secrecy and recklessness and America’s careful stewardship of its space turf.) There is also barely suppressed hope in China that the United States will screw up, either by missing the satellite or creating an embarrassing shower of wreckage, so that the Chinese, still smarting from the PR debacle of their own ASAT test, can savor the sweet, sweet taste of schadenfreud. I find it rather ironic that the public US disarmament community is also unable to divine the actual motives for the U.S. shootdown. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is still dispute over why the Chinese knocked down their satellite. America’s continued desire to treat its pre-eminence in space as beyond challenge or discussion is well illustrated by the shootdown of USA 193—a unilateral piece of public-safety policing by the world’s self-appointed space sheriff. It reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s invocation of Star Wars as humanity’s shield against invading aliens and angry asteroids. China’s awareness of America’s strategic dominance in space, its desire to be treated as an equal in space—and its desire to have both its role and the American presence in space the subject of peer-to-peer negotiation–should not be dismissed as a motivation for its test. And yes, America’s rejection out of hand of the Russian and Chinese initiative at the UN disarmament conference last week to ban space weapons does seem to be on China’s mind“. China Hand’s blog, China Matters, is here.

Russia has not commented yet.

U.S. says missile successfully shot down falling satellite

So, this is perhaps good news, if true — at least for those who were worried about dangers from falling debris.

But it might be bad news for U.S. – Russian relations…

Just a couple of hours after a total lunar eclipse, the U.S. Navy reported it managed to shoot down the falling American satellite — on the first try.

[A second specially-souped-up missile was on-site, if needed, and a third was being transported to the site by another U.S. Navy ship]

The missile flew 130 miles before apparently hitting its target, according to the Washington Post, in a report published here. It was apparently, a three-stage missile, and not a two-stage missile as previously reported — would this make it nearly an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile? But, if so, it would be an ICBM without an explosive warhead, see CNN story below. [Nevertheless, in this case, the U.S. may really be testing Russia’s patience to the limit — the U.S. withdrew from its bilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, despite Russia’s strong and repeated objections, in June 2001. The ABM treaty limits ballistic missile deployment areas and any qualitative improvements in the missile technology.]

The paper reports, cryptically, that the Navy will now dismantle the other two specially-modified missiles.

The WPost added that “The operation was so extraordinary, with such intense international publicity and political ramifications, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates — not a military commander — made the decision to pull the trigger. Gates had arrived in Hawaii a few hours before the missile was launched. He was there to begin a round-the-world trip, not to monitor the missile operation. His press secretary, Geoff Morrell, told reporters traveling with Gates that the defense chief gave the go-ahead at 1:40 p.m. EST while en route from Washington”.

CNN reported that “A network of land-, air-, sea- and space-based sensors confirms that the U.S. military intercepted a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite which was in its final orbits before entering the Earth’s atmosphere,” a Department of Defense statement said. ‘At approximately 10:26 p.m. EST today, a U.S. Navy AEGIS warship, the USS Lake Erie, fired a single modified tactical Standard Missile-3, hitting the satellite approximately 247 kilometers (133 nautical miles) over the Pacific Ocean as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph’. It was unknown whether the missile hit its precise target — the satellite’s full fuel tank. The Department of Defense said it wouldn’t know for certain for 24 hours whether the fuel tank had been hit. However, several defense officials told The Associated Press the missile did apparently destroy the fuel tank. ‘Debris will begin to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere immediately’, the department said. ‘Nearly all of the debris will burn up on re-entry within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days’. However, even if the missile didn’t score a direct hit, ‘any kind of hit provides a much better outcome than doing nothing at all’, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The missile didn’t carry a warhead, with authorities saying the impact was expected to be sufficient to destroy the fuel tank. Navy gunners had just a 10-second window to fire …the 10-second window would have occurred on each of the next nine or 10 days … One Pentagon official said that since early January, a team including 200 industry experts and scientists had worked furiously to modify the Aegis air-defense missile system so it could shoot down the satellite. Among the team’s challenges was modifying the sensors designed to detect the heat from an incoming warhead, as the satellite will be much cooler. The missile was to release a ‘kinetic kill vehicle’, enabling it to ‘see’ the satellite and adjust its course toward it if necessary, officials said. This CNN story is here.

The same CNN story added that “In 1989, a U.S. fighter jet destroyed a U.S. satellite by firing a modified air-to-air missile into space from an altitude of 80,000 feet. That adds to evidence that the U.S. acted Wednesday strictly to guard against the prospect of a potential disaster, said Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff”.

CNN also reported in another story that “The last total lunar eclipse until 2010 occurs Wednesday night, with cameo appearances by Saturn and the bright star Regulus on either side of the veiled full moon…Wednesday’s total eclipse phase will last nearly an hour. It will begin around 7 p.m. on the West Coast and 10 p.m. on the East Coast. West Coast skygazers will miss the start of the eclipse because it occurs before the moon rises”. The CNN report on the total lunar eclipse is here.

The Associated Press noted that “The [U.S.] government organized hazardous materials teams, under the code name ‘Burnt Frost’, to be flown to the site of any dangerous or otherwise sensitive debris that might land in the United States or elsewhere”. This AP report is here.

A story on Space.com suggests that some of the falling debris might be visible: ” ‘There is a possibility that if someone were to have clear skies in the Pacific Northwest or Canada, they might see some of the debris’, said Geoff Chester, public affairs officer for the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. ‘We just don’t know. If the debris does enter the atmosphere then it’s actually quite possible to see it anywhere along the ground track of the satellite’. Because only two satellites have been shot down before, each under unique conditions [apparently, these would be the January 2007 Chinese test on one of its own “weather” satellites, and the previously-obscure 1989 event noted in the CNN story above], experts don’t have much experience to go on in predicting what to expect … The satellite’s path will take it east from Hawaii to the northwestern U.S. and British Columbia, then over the whole of Canada, down across the Atlantic, over West Africa, and back over the south Atlantic. The actual impact will not be visible to anyone, because it will occur over Hawaii during daylight, Chester said. Even if the Department of Defense does not attempt to shoot down the satellite tonight, all future attempts will also be during daylight over Hawaii”. This report is posted here.

Another story on Space.com gives some interesting analysis of this event: ” ‘The spy agency doesn’t want some part of the satellite to fall into the wrong hands,” said Coyle [former assistant secretary of defense Philip Coyle], now a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information. ‘I don’t think that’s being emphasized enough as a motivation for NRO to want this thing to be shot down’. [That might be because all American officials are denying it, and saying that the only intent is to save human life, which might be at risk if the fuel tank survives re-entry intact. It is apparently full, as the satellite misfunctioned immediately after being launched, and it contains substances that would be toxic if inhaled…] In order of importance to the NRO, Coyle named two other reasons for the attempted shoot-down: ‘Number two, poke the Chinese, because we’re showing them not only that we can shoot down a satellite in a test without creating a lot of debris like they did. But we’re also showing them we can do it any place in the world, because we’re doing it from the ocean‘, Coyle said, referring to a similar satellite destruction by the Chinese. ‘And a third reason is to show off our missile-defense capabilities such as this, though this is much easier than hitting an enemy warhead’ … Coyle, the former Defense Department official, doesn’t think the hydrazine tank is a big enough safety issue in the first place, stating that the U.S. produces about 36 million pounds (about 16 million kilograms) of hydrazine each year. ‘If we’re so worried about hydrazine we oughtn’t to be trucking it around on U.S. highways and on rail cars the way we do, if that’s really our concern’, Coyle told SPACE.com … The satellite and missile would close on one another at a velocity of about 22,783 mph (36,667 kph). Hitting the bus-sized target is just half the battle. To be completely successful, the missile must also destroy the satellite’s fuel tank, which holds about 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of toxic hydrazine. Pentagon officials have argued that if the satellite were to fall through the atmosphere with no missile interference the hydrazine tank could survive the fiery descent to reach Earth’s surface intact, spewing toxic gas over an area about the size of two football fields. Those who inhaled it would need medical attention. ‘In this case, we have some historical background that we can work against for the tank that contains the hydrazine’, said Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright during a Feb. 14 press briefing. ‘We had a similar one on Columbia that survived re-entry. We have a pretty reasonable understanding that, if the tank is left intact, it would survive the re-entry’. However, destroying the fuel tank and dispersing the hydrazine requires a direct hit on the possibly tumbling satellite. The high closing speeds for the satellite intercept and the uncertainty of puncturing the fuel tank could make that goal questionable, according to an analysis done by Geoffrey Forden, an MIT physicist and space expert. ‘If they do shoot at it, even if they hit it, there’s just a 30 percent chance that the shrapnel connected by the intersection hits the hydrazine tank’, Forden said … The attempted shoot down of the satellite will undoubtedly send a political message. Both Russia and China have expressed concerns regarding the U.S. attempt, with Russia labeling it a weapons test of the missile defense system. ‘The timing of it is very interesting, coming after [the Russia-China] proposal on banning space weapons’, said Roger Launius, National Air and Space Museum senior curator. He added that the U.S. attempt could be a response to China’s anti-satellite test last year that ‘we can do this too’, and take out satellites if necessary. ‘The potential political cost of shooting down this satellite is high’, said Laura Grego, an astrophysicist with the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Global Security Program. ‘Whatever the motivation for it, demonstrating an anti-satellite weapon is counterproductive to U.S. long-term interests, given that the United States has the most to gain from an international space weapons ban. Instead, it should be taking the lead in negotiating a treaty’. A U.S. attempt that fails to destroy the satellite could also send a message – although not one the U.S. would like. China and the rest of the world could assume the miss was a fluke, or they could also see failure as evidence that the U.S. technological lead in space has declined, according to Launius Forden calculated the risks of the hydrazine tank killing or injuring someone at 3.5 percent if it survived re-entry. However, he stated his belief that the political consequences of the attempted shoot-down could be worse, by further opening up the international arena for future anti-satellite tests and possible conflict in space. ‘You have to weigh the chance of [the satellite] killing or injuring someone against legitimizing China’s ASAT [anti-satellite] test’, Forden said … The future of space as a battlefield could mean clouds of debris from destroyed satellites. That would add to some 17,000-plus objects that are already being tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. According to the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office at the space agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for the past 45 years, the average number of cataloged object re-entries has been one per day. ‘Stuff will hang up there until gravity brings it down’, noted Launius. ‘If you get enough of that up there, just getting through it could be an issue for mission launches’.” This interesting Space.com analysis is posted here.

By purest coincidence, this event coincides with the launch of a new website at the U.S. Mission to the UN in Geneva here — specifically on matters relating to the Conference on Disarmament, where China and Russia have been lobbying for years for the launch of talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), and the U.S. has been refusing. The website launch was announced by email on Wednesday 20 February.

As the first CNN story mentioned above reported today, “The military timed its shootdown attempt so that resulting debris would tumble into the atmosphere and not interfere with other satellites, said Christina Rocca, a U.S. diplomat and expert on disarmament. Her comments were included in an online United Nations report on this month’s Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland. The military also timed its efforts to minimize the chances that debris would hit populated areas. But the United States is ‘prepared to offer assistance to governments to mitigate the consequences of any satellite debris impacts on their territory’, according to a report of Rocca’s remarks on the Web site of the Geneva office of the UN”. This CNN story is posted here.

See Ambassador Christina Rocca’s fascinating 15 February statement to the Conference on Disarmament plenary meeting on this then-impending satellite shoot-down — where she says: “We have recently modified three SM-3 missiles and three U.S. Navy ships to perform this mission … Our transparency in notifying foreign governments and the broader international community is consistent with our commitment to safe and responsible space operations. This extraordinary engagement is an emergency response to prevent the possible loss of life. This engagement is not part of an anti-satellite development and testing program, we do not intend to retain the technical capability resulting from the modifications required to carry out the engagement.” — here.

Satellite shoot-down window nears

The U.S. has announced that air and sea traffic should stay clear of an area of the Pacific starting at 10:30 pm Eastern Standard Time, less than four hours from now, in case an order can be given to fire a missile from a navy ship to shoot down a falling satelite.

U.S. President Bush has decided that the attempt will be made to try to shoot down the satellite. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will be the one to give the order.

The satellite is expected to be at the point of re-entering the earth’s atmosphere by 29 February. Left on its own, it would hit the earth by the end of the first week of March.

The NY Times says the shoot-down should take place during daylight, which would mean not for another six hours.

The newspaper added that “Providing new information about how the mission will be carried out, a senior military officer said Wednesday that three Navy warships were in position in the Pacific Ocean to launch the interceptors, and that radar and other tracking equipment, both in space and on the ground, were being monitored at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, and at a space command headquarters in Colorado Springs. The operation is being controlled from the Strategic Command headquarters in Omaha, Neb., with additional monitoring of information from the interceptor managed by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency. Although the satellite circles the globe every 90 minutes, analysts have pinpointed a single overhead pass each day that would offer the best chance of striking the satellite, and then having 50 percent of the debris fall into the atmosphere during the very next three orbits over water or less populated areas of the Earth. When the order is given to carry out the mission, the Navy will have a window that lasts only tens of seconds as the satellite passes overhead, the senior military officer said”. This NYTimes story is here.

The Washington Post says that “The Pentagon wants to hit it with an SM-3 missile just before it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, in that way minimizing the amount of debris that would remain in space”.

The newspaper reported that “Adding to the difficulty of the shootdown mission, the missile will have to do better than just hit the bus-sized satellite, a Navy official said Tuesday. It needs to strike the relatively small fuel tank aboard the spacecraft in order to accomplish the main goal, which is to eliminate the toxic fuel that could injure or even kill people if it reached Earth. The Navy official described technical aspects of the missile’s capabilities on condition that he not be identified. Also complicating the effort will be the fact that the satellite has no heat-generating propulsion system on board. That makes it more difficult for the Navy missile’s heat-seeking system to work, although the official said software changes had been made to compensate for the lack of heat … He said the mission could go forward on any day until Feb. 29, when the satellite is projected to have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, making it infeasible to attempt to hit it with the Navy missile”. This WPost story is here.

ABC News says that “The Aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie is already in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles west of the Hawaiian Islands. As the primary ship in the mission, it is carrying two SM3 missiles with specially modified tracking systems to hit the satellite 120 miles above Earth. The destroyer USS Decatur is en route to join the Lake Erie with another backup missile … Once the satellite is hit, Northern Command in Colorado will track the debris in an attempt to determine how big the pieces are and where they will land. The military will also be looking to see whether the fuel tank has been destroyed. The satellite is considered a cold target, and technicians will have to rely on the sun’s energy to heat the satellite just enough to produce a heat signature that the missile’s infrared heat sensors can easily target. The tip of the interceptor nose cone also carries optical equipment that helps it lock onto the target. The satellite will travel at a much faster rate of speed than any of the missiles intercepted in past years of testing. Nevertheless, the Navy believes the missile can be maneuvered to hit the satellite precisely on its sphere-size tank carrying the toxic fuel hydrazine. The Pentagon won’t provide advance warning of the shoot-down attempt, but within an hour of an interception the Department of Defense will issue a statement announcing the launch, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Tuesday … The planned hit will take place when the satellite is orbiting just above Earth’s atmosphere, so that most of the debris from the missile’s destruction would fall out of orbit in just a few days, rather than continuing to orbit in space where it could be a hazard to the International Space Station and future shuttle flights. If any debris does get close to the space station, flight controllers will move the orbiting outpost out of the way. They have done so six times in the space station’s 10 years in orbit”… This ABC News story is here.

Russia makes a move – expresses suspicion about U.S. plans to shoot down falling satellite

According to a report from the Associated Press, “Russia said Saturday that U.S. military plans to shoot down a damaged spy satellite may be a veiled test of America’s missile defense system. The Pentagon failed to provide ‘enough arguments’ to back its plan to smash the satellite next week with a missile, Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement. ‘There is an impression that the United States is trying to use the accident with its satellite to test its national anti-missile defense system’s capability to destroy other countries’ satellites’, the ministry said”.

The AP story also reported that “The Bush administration says the operation is not a test of a program to kill other nations’ orbiting communications and intelligence capabilities. U.S. diplomats around the world have been instructed to inform governments that it is meant to protect people from 1,000 pounds of toxic fuel on the bus-sized satellite hurtling toward Earth. The diplomats were told to distinguish the upcoming attempt from last year’s test by China of a missile specifically designed to take out satellites, which was criticized by the United States and other countries … Left alone, the satellite would likely hit Earth during the first week of March …The operation to shoot down the dead satellite could happen as soon as next week”. This AP report is posted here.

Later, China expressed concern, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said on Sunday, according to a Reuters report from Beijing, that the government “is considering what ‘preventative measures’ to take … ‘The Chinese government is paying close attention to how the situation develops and demands the U.S. side fulfill its international obligations and avoids causing damage to security in outer space and of other countries … Relevant departments in China are closely watching the situation and studying preventive measures,” Liu said in a brief statement posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site (www.fmprc.gov.cn)”.

Reuters added that “It will be the first time the United States has conducted an anti-satellite operation since the 1980s. Russia also has not conducted anti-satellite activities in 20 years. China launched a ground-based missile into an obsolete weather satellite in January 2007, drawing international criticism and worries inside the Pentagon that Beijing has the ability to target critical military assets in space”. This AP report from Beijing is posted here.

At the time, the U.S. characterized China’s action as “a matter of concern,” since it indicates a possible threat to America’s own satellites, as well as those of other countries. And the Center for Defense Information (CDI), a Washington-based think tank, condemned the Chinese test as “provocative and irresponsible,” saying it “should be roundly condemned” and adding that “the deliberate creation of persistent space-debris in a highly-used orbit is simply unacceptable behavior in space.” The CDI also noted that “some observers have suggested that the ASAT [anti-satellite] test could have been a strategic move by the Chinese to bully the United States into actually discussing such a [Chinese-desired outer space disarmament] treaty.” The CDI went on to warn that: “The United States and the international community need to take the time to finally have the difficult discussion about what actions are acceptable in space, and, more importantly, which ones are absolutely unacceptable.” If no country took China to task, the think tank said, “space will become the new Wild West; a situation … guaranteed to put everyone’s space assets even more at risk.”

Shortly after China’s action was reported last year, China confirmed to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva that it had indeed conducted an anti-satellite test in outer space. China’s disarmament ambassador to the CD, Cheng Jingye told diplomats that, “as everybody was aware,” China had long been advocating for the launch of talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Ambassador Cheng, who was speaking at the 2007 CD session’s second meeting, also noted that China and the Russian Federation had already submitted to the Conference some suggested points to be included in a draft treaty that they want to begin to negotiate. Such a treaty would be aimed at banning the deployment of weapons in outer space, as well as preventing the use, or threat of use, of weapons against space objects.

The U.S. is the chief objector — and it has the usual support from its friends.

China in particular has been very put out that the U.S. will not agree — the U.S. says, among other things, that the 1972 Outer Space Treaty is perfectly adequate, and that there is no arms race in outer space. China believes that the U.S. does indeed have a space weaponization program, which grew out of the Reagan Star Wars semi-bluff, and which involves the use of satellites in at least targetting and guiding missiles and other weapons.

In January 2007 China shocked the world by successfully shooting down one of its own weather satellites with a ground-launched missile, in a not-too-subtle demonstration of the clear need to negotiate some new rules.

Russia has surprised everybody by sticking with China on this, and Russia now has its own issues with the U.S., related to the stated U.S. intention to deploy part of its “missile shield” in eastern European countries bordering Russia. The two countries have recently submitted a slightly revised proposal that they hope will permit the launch of negotiations.

One way out of this antagonism would be for the U.S. to agree to the start of PAROS talks in Geneva — what is the harm in talking??? China does not want just talks, of course, it wants an eventual treaty — but what’s the harm of another treaty??? China says it has been willing to make concessions, and to accept the start of talks on a Fissile Material cut-off (at least, of production — no one is talking yet about eliminating stockpiles), which is the U.S. top disarmament priority, so long as the U.S. will also recognize and move on China’s top priority, which is PAROS.

Russia and China would view the U.S. as less controlling (and deceptive) and more open and cooperative, if only it would agree to the space talks.

The problems related to this falling U.S. satellite offer the U.S. a way to make this concession that they have fought for years — which will unblock the disarmament stalemate, and defuse the tensions between the world’s major nuclear powers.

First China, now U.S. may shoot down its own space satellite

China shot down one of its own “old” space satellites in January 2007 — apparently with hopes of influencing debate at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, where China has been fighting for years to see work begin on a treaty on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS).

The U.S. has refused, so far.

Russia has continued supporting China, to the amazement of many diplomats (particularly European), and Russia and China are pursuing their efforts to open discussions on the situation in space.

The two countries apparently fear that the “Star Wars” idea first launched by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan is somehow still behind both the U.S. efforts to deploy an international “Missile Defense Shield”, and the American refusal to discuss this in a disarmament forum.

As condemnation of China’s actions last year coalesced around outrage at the creation of space debris and pollution, China confirmed to Geneva’s Conference on Disarmament that it had indeed conducted an anti-satellite test in outer space, and said that a ground-based medium-range missile was used to destroy an ageing Chinese weather satellite. At the time Germany’s Arms Control and Disarmament deputy commissioner Ambassador Rudiger Ludeking, speaking on behalf of the European Union, told the Conference on Disarmament that the EU “is very concerned about the recent test of an anti-satellite weapon. Such a test is inconsistent with international efforts to avert an arms race in outer space.”

One of the amazing things about last year’s Chinese “test” is that was the first time that a ground-based missile was successfully launched to destroy an orbiting satellite, as Asia Times reported at the time.

Now, in a scenario that could be as much a retort to the Chinese “test” last year as the basis for a thrilling disaster movie, U.S. President George W. Bush has apparently given the order to try to shoot down a faltering U.S. satellite that will fall to earth in the coming weeks. The intention, U.S. officials say, is to help avoid a serious accident. But, it also appears that the U.S. cannot resist the chance to try to meet — if not beat — what the Chinese accomplished by their “test” last year

CNN has just reported that “The U.S. military may try within days to shoot down a failed satellite using a missile launched from a Navy ship, officials announced Thursday. Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that the window to accomplish the mission could begin in three to four days, and remain open for seven to eight. While much space trash and debris have safely crashed to Earth after burning up in the atmosphere on re-entry, authorities said what makes this 5,000-pound satellite different is the approximately 1,000 pounds of frozen toxic hydrazine propellant it carries. Without any intervention, officials believe the satellite would come down on its own in early March. If it came down in one piece, nearly half the spacecraft would survive re-entry and the hydrazine — heated to a gas — could spread a toxic cloud roughly the size of two football fields, Cartwright said. Hydrazine is similar to chlorine or ammonia in that it affects the lungs and breathing tissue, the general said. The option of striking the satellite with a missile launched from an Aegis cruiser was decided upon by President Bush after consultation with several government and military officials and aerospace experts, said Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffrey. ‘After further review of this option and, in particular, consideration of the question of saving or reducing injury to human life, the president, on the recommendation of his national and homeland teams, directed the Department of Defense to carry out the intercept’, Jeffrey said. The goal is to hit the satellite just before it enters Earth’s atmosphere and blast it apart so that the hydrazine tank explodes. The smaller debris would be more likely to burn up in the atmosphere. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said there’s nothing the military can do to make the outcome worse. ‘If we miss, nothing changes. If we shoot and barely touch it, the satellite is just barely in orbit’ and would still burn up somewhat in the atmosphere, Griffin said. ‘If we shoot and get a direct hit, that’s a clean kill and we’re in good shape’, he added. Experts said that with three-quarters of Earth covered in water, there’s a 25 percent chance the satellite’s remnants will hit land — and a 1 percent chance they will hit a populated area…” This CNN story is posted here.

Another really interesting part about all this is that CNN reported earlier that “A U.S. official confirmed that the spy satellite is designated by the military as US 193. It was launched in December 2006 but almost immediately lost power and cannot be controlled. It carried a sophisticated and secret imaging sensor but the satellite’s central computer failed shortly after launch. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is classified as secret … The satellite includes some small engines that contain a toxic chemical called hydrazine — which is rocket fuel. But Renuart said they are not large booster engines with substantial amounts of fuel. Video images of the satellite captured by John Locker, a British amateur satellite watcher, show it to be about 13 feet to 16.5 feet across. He believes it weighs a maximum of 10,000 pounds. Locker calculated its size with data on its altitude and location provided by other amateur satellite watchers, using the International Space Station as a yardstick. Satellite watchers — a worldwide network of hobbyists who track satellites for fun — have been plotting the satellite’s degradation for a year. They estimate it is now at an altitude of about 173 miles, and Locker believes it is dropping about 1,640 feet a day. Where it lands will be difficult to predict until the satellite falls to about 59 miles above the Earth and enters the atmosphere. It will then begin to burn up, with flares visible from the ground, said Ted Molczan, a Canadian satellite tracker. From that point on, he said, it will take about 30 minutes to fall”. This CNN story is posted here.

So, this satellite — an advanced spy satellite with a “sophisticated and secret imaging sensor” — was launched just weeks before the Chinese “test”. Hmmm, could there have been any link between these events?

The U.S. is taking a risk — but greatly increasing the entertainment value — by announcing its plans in advance. What if the U.S. fails (where China succeeded)??? And, even if the U.S. does manage the “kill”, what about all the space debris for which China was so roundly berated?

AP is reporting that “The military will have to choose a time and a location that will avoid to the greatest degree any damage to other satellites in the sky. Also, there is the possibility that large pieces could remain, and either stay in orbit where they can collide with other satellites or possibly fall to Earth … [O]fficials familiar with the situation say about half of the 5,000-pound spacecraft is expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and will scatter debris — some of it potentially hazardous — over several hundred miles. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.” This headline AP story is posted here.

For comparison purposes, the earlier CNN report says that “In January 2007, China used a land-based missile to destroy a 2,200-pound satellite that was orbiting 528 miles above Earth. But the impact left more than 150,000 pieces of debris floating above Earth, NASA estimates. The space agency characterizes nearly 2,600 pieces as ‘large’, meaning greater than 4 inches across, which pose a potential threat to satellites and spacecraft. China is responsible for 42 percent of all satellite debris in orbit as of January 1, most of it from that Fengyun-C meteorological satellite. NASA has called it the worst satellite breakup in history”. This CNN story is posted here.

Why did China shoot down one of its own satellites, now?

Why did China shoot down one of its own “old” satellites, orbiting more than 500 miles out in space, now? It did so to influence the debate in the Conference on Disarmament, which opened its 2007 session at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on Monday.

China, which has traditionally maintained a rather low profile in international organizations, has stubbornly refused to give up its insistence on having real, meaningful negotiations on outer space in the Conference on Disarmament.

Its top national security concern, China has been saying, is the prevention of an arms race in outer space (known as PAROS, in disarmament lingo). It wants its concerns respected, and taken seriously.

Now, China may have gotten the Conference on Disarmament’s full attention.

China has apparently used a medium-range missile to shoot down one of its own “ageing” satellites — an event which the U.S. says is a “a matter of concern”, because it indicates a possible threat to American satellites.

Asia Times Online’s China Editor Wu Zhong reported on 22 January that the Chinese test “has surprised the international community as it is the first time that a ground-based missile has been launched successfully to destroy an orbiting satellite“.

The worldwide reaction began with the first reports of the Chinese test last week — nearly a week after the 11 January test actually happened — and only appears to be growing.

One strand was perhaps intended to offer China a somewhat clumsy way to save face — based on the premise, reported in the New York Times on 22 January, that China’s leaders did not know about test (this hypothesis is reinforced by the lack of comment from China), at least in any detail, beforehand. This school of thought believes that the international outcry and not been adequately anticipated.

The U.S. State Department announced on 22 January that Chinese officials had, over the weekend, acknowledged the test — but these officials said the world should not view it as a threat — in discussions in Beijing with visiting State Department official Christopher Hill, who, as it happened, travelled to China to discuss another matter (North Korea). This admission to Hill may well have been the source of the New York Times story.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry finally said, on 23 January, that it had confirmed the test to “some” countries — apparently including the U.S. and Japan. The Associated Press reported that Foreign Ministy spokesman Liu Jianchao told journalists: “China has opposed the weaponization of space and any arms race,” and added that the test was not targeted toward any country.

Another strand of reaction scolds China for creating a dangerous cloud of space debris particles, which could endanger other satellites and possibly even the International Space station

The Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank, has condemned the Chinese test as “provocative and irresponsible”, and says that it “should be roundly condemned. The deliberate creation of persistent space debris in a highly used orbit is simply unacceptable behavior in space”.

The CDI said, in its 22 January analysis, that “It is unclear what Beijing hoped to accomplish with this provocative test. China has been one of the major players pushing for a treaty that would prevent the weaponization of space”, and added that “Some observers have suggested that the ASAT test could have been a strategic move by the Chinese to bully the United States into actually discussing such a treaty”.

According to the CDI, “the United States and the international community need to take the time to finally have the difficult discussion about what actions are acceptable in space and, more importantly, which ones are absolutely unacceptable. Otherwise, space will become the new Wild West, a situation that is guaranteed to put everyone^’s space assets even more at risk”.

A sub-debate has developed among arms specialists about the level of expertise required for the successful Chinese test.

Canada’s Globa and Mail, in an article from Beijing published on 22 January, said that “The satellite was only about a metre in length, so its destruction by a ballistic missile was a highly impressive show of precision targeting”.

Other reports have suggested that the mission was facilitated by the fact that the Chinese military controlled the signalling from the satellite, which helped the missile home in on the target.

The CDI in Washington did not minimize the achievement: “China’s FY-1C weather satellite, in a polar orbit, was launched in 1999 and approaching the end of its lifespan, but it still worked electronically. This capability allowed it to be tracked by Chinese radar and its path adjusted so that its orbit would be conducive to an intercept. However, to directly intercept an object moving roughly 15,000 mph takes a tremendous amount of accuracy. The FY-1C was spotted by various space surveillance networks on Jan. 11. It disappeared from view and then reappeared on Jan. 12 in a cloud of debris…”

In a message sent to the opening meeting of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on 22 January, UN Secretary-General BAN KI-MOON said that “the prevention of an arms race in outer space presents an urgent challenge, as such a race would seriously affect the preservation of outer space for peaceful purposes”.

There was no discussion of the Chinese test in the meeting — and China’s delegation did not say a word. Dr. Patricia Lewis, a disarmament expert who heads the Geneva-based UN Institute for Disarmament Training and Research (UNIDIR) said that this was not unexpected — as the first matter of business is always to adopt the annual session’s agenda. However, she indicated, everybody is eagerly awaiting some explanation.

China has been saying, over and over, for several years, that it wants the U.S. to agree to recognize this as China’s top national security concern, and to agree to begin negotiations on this topic. China wants real work on an “international legal instrument”, as it told the Conference on Disarmament many times, the last time was in June 2006.

China’s delegation told the Conference on Disarmament at that time, that it was willing to make one concession — to hold off, “until conditions are ripe” — dealing with a verification regime, an issue which has been the sticking point in many international treaty negotiations in recent years, and to work instead on agreement on “Technical Confidence-Building Measures”. China insists, it is necessary — it wants real, serious negotiations on a new arms control agreement addressing its concerns about outer space.

China’s concerns were formulated after intensive Chinese research over many years into U.S. positions on strategic defense and national security that have been set out in public and leaked documents — most posted on the internet — and in Congressional testimony, as well as discussed in the media and in think tanks.

Until now, however, the U.S. has been insisting that China is simply not serious about the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, but is just trying to block the start of negotiations of a cap on production of fissile material — the stuff needed to ignite nuclear explosions — which the U.S. has been arguing is the only topic ready for disarmament negotiations at the present moment.

The U.S. has also claimed that a 1967 Outer Space Treaty is adequate, but Chinese officials have complained that it only bans weapons of mass destruction in space, while leaving all other matters open.

The U.S. still has more friends and more influence than China in international politics, and a chorus of former Cold War allies shake their heads and make speeches saying that China should be more reasonable and flexible. A number of the 65 member of the Conference on Disarmament have supported the U.S. concession indicating that it would agree to open simple “talks” on space matters in a sub-body.

China has been almost isolated in its stand — but it does have the support of the Russian Federation, which still seems to harbor resentment at the American unilateral renunciation of the bilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which the U.S. called a Cold War relic. For the U.S., apparently, the ABM Treaty had to go because it posed a legal obstacle to the development of the U.S. “star wars” or “space-based missile defense shield”.

China has said it will agree to discuss a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), which the U.S. wants — but only if the U.S. also agrees to discuss China’s concerns about outer space, “with a view” toward eventual real negotiations. It is very important for China to have U.S. recognition of China’s priorities.

In August 2002, China’s Ambassador HU Xiaodi said in an interview with this reporter that “we already agreed, we Chinese already agreed, to lower our demand, because originally we think it is certainly high time we have to do negotiations to try to work out a real treaty…[and] to a great extent we have already taken into account the view of the Americans. That is, OK, if you say you are not ready to do the negotiations, let’s first try to kind of discuss and to work on the item. But we have to have a clear goal in the future. Our persistent view, our position, is that we regard Outer Space as our top priority issue, and we want real negotiations on that. And for them, they think FMCT is their most urgent issue, their top priority, they want negotiations on that. And for the Group of 21, they regard Nuclear Disarmament as their top priority issue, and they want negotiations on that. In such a situation, in our mind, the really fair way to solve the issue is to give kind of equal treatment to all the three top priority items. Otherwise, you could only have a discriminatory solution. That is definitely an unfair situation. And, now, the Chinese position basically is that, if you agree to our demand on our top priority issue, we will respect your demand on your top priority issue…And, as I said, we already made great concessions. Our original and principled position is that Outer Space should have negotiations“.

One of the favorite private games of European diplomats in the Conference on Disarmament has been to try to second-guess how long the Russian support for China would last — they thought it was faltering for sure on several occasions. A number of observers in Geneva have been more convinced than ever, over the past year, that China has been on the verge of caving in.

The shooting down of its satellite on 11 January may have turned this situation around. In this context, it is not impossible that the test was carried out to settle a dispute over tactics between China’s powerful People’s Liberation Army, for example, and its diplomatic service.

Also interesting, so far, is that the Russian Federation has not betrayed and abandoned China.

The Russian Federation seems, in fact, to be, diplomatically, equally in favor of negotiating both a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and a treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. And, rather than feeling threatened by China’s test, as some analysts suggest, Russia may instead have decided that it is a good occasion to re-state its larger goal of influencing, if not deterring, U.S. efforts to pursue a space-based missile defense shield.

The Associated Press reported from Moscow on 22 January that a leading Russian General — the chief of the Space Forces branch of the military — has said that “A U.S. proposal to install part of its missile defense system in former Warsaw Pact nations (the Czech Republic and Poland, apparently) would be a clear threat to Russia”.

The Conference on Disarmament has been completely stalled for over ten years, since a the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — which was negotiated in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, but blocked by India’s objection that it maintained nuclear apartheid — was pushed through the UN General Assembly in New York in late 1997. India was not the only member which felt that the CTBT simply prevents any other state from developing nuclear weapons, while maintaining the special status of the five official nuclear-weapons powers (U.S., Russia, China, U.K. and France – by purest coincidence, these are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and the only ones with veto power). The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) says that only states which have conducted nuclear tests prior to 1 January 1967 are nuclear weapons powers; but it also says that peaceful nuclear technology should be shared, and that the five official nuclear weapons powers must work toward eventual total nuclear disarmament — which appears to be quite a long way off.

The NPT, which was originally negotiated to last 25 years after its entry into force in 1970, was extended indefinitely (forever) by a conference of states parties meeting in New York in 1995 — after the extension was blocked in the Conference on Disarmement in Geneva. The Conference on Disarmament operates on a consensus rule, which gives each of its now-65 members a veto. India, among others, objected to an indefinite extension of the NPT, preventing the Conference on Disarmament from taking this decision.

A few months later, in May 1998, first India, then neighboring rival Pakistan, conducted nuclear tests. India has since declared itself a nuclear weapons state, (though Britain archly told India, in the Conference on Disarmament, that this was legalistically impossible, because of the NPT’s definition).

These two precedents may explain the logic of China’s recent move.