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.