When china destroyed its own satellite, outrage – and debris – rapidly encircled the globe. Was the sat kill a policy weapon or the start of an arms race in space?
At 5:28 pm Eastern Standard Time on January 11, a satellite arced over southern China. It was small – just 2 metres long – a tiny object in the heavens, steadily bleeping its location to ground stations below, just as it had every day for the past seven years. And then it was gone, transformed into a cloud of debris hurtling at nearly
25 000 km/h along the main thoroughfare used by orbiting spacecraft.
It was not the start of the world’s first war in space, but it could have been. It was just a test: The satellite was a defunct Chinese weather spacecraft. And the country that destroyed it was China. According to reports, a mobile launcher at the Songlin test facility near Xichang, in Sichuan province, lofted a multistage solid-fuel missile topped with a kinetic kill vehicle. Travelling nearly 30 000 km/h, the kill vehicle intercepted the sat and – boom – obliterated it. “It was almost just a dead-reckoning flight with little control over the intercept path,” says Phillip S Clark, an independent British authority who has written widely on the Chinese and Russian space programmes.
For China, a nation that has already sent humans into space and developed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the technology involved in the test was hardly remarkable. But as a demonstration of a rising military posture, it was a surprisingly aggressive act, especially since China has long pushed for an international treaty banning space weapons. “The move was a dangerous step toward the abyss of weaponising space,” says Theresa Hitchens, director of the Centre for Defence Information, an independent defence research group in Washington, DC. “China held the moral high ground about space, and that test re-energised the China hawks in Congress. If we’re not careful, space could become the new Wild West. You don’t just go and blow things up there.” In fact, after the Chinese test, India publicly stepped up its development of anti-satellite technology. And some Israeli officials have argued that, given China’s record of selling missile technology to Iran, Israel should develop its own programme.
For many countries, the most disturbing aspect of the test was not the potentially destabilising sat kill, but the resulting debris, which poses a serious threat to every satellite in orbit, as well as to the International Space Station. “Space debris is a huge problem,” says Laura Grego, staff scientist in the Global Security Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “A 1-centimetre object is very hard to track, but can do considerable damage if it collides with any spacecraft at a high rate of speed.” Think of a shotgun pellet travelling at 10 times the speed of a bullet, smashing into a device built to be as light as possible. And then consider that China’s antisatellite (ASAT) test produced as many as 35 000 of these pellets, or pieces of debris, in the 1 cm range. Nearly
1 500 pieces were 10 cm and larger.
Although the United States knew that China was planning to test ASAT technology, its officials – reluctant to disclose the level of US surveillance – chose to say nothing. China failed two or three times before successfully launching the missile in January. All the attempts were observed by the US Air Force satellite system known as the Defence Support Programme. Infrared telescopes on these 10 m defence satellites can spot the plumes from rockets launched anywhere on Earth.
America’s own sat kills
Every industrialised country relies on satellites every day, for everything from computer networking technology to telecommunications, navigation, weather prediction, television and radio. This makes satellites especially vulnerable targets. Imagine the US military suddenly without guidance for its soldiers and weapons systems, and its civilians without storm warnings or telephones.
Some satellites, however, are at greater risk than others. Most spacecraft – including spy sats – are in low Earth orbit, which stretches 12 000 km into space. As the Chinese test proved, such targets could be hit with medium-range missiles tipped with crude kill devices. GPS satellites are far higher, orbiting at about 20 000 km. Many communications sats are in the 35 000-km range. Destroying them requires a much more powerful and sophisticated long-range ballistic missile – yet it can be done. “You’d need a sky-sweeping capability to comprehensively negate a space support system that is scattered all over,” says John Pike, a space analyst at GlobalSecurity.org. “You’d need ICBM-sized boosters – hundreds of them.”
Such an all-out satellite war would render space useless for decades to come. “There’d be so much debris up there,” Clark says, “that it wouldn’t be safe to put anything up in space.”
The United States and Russia, the two countries with proven ASAT capabilities, have long steered clear of satellites as military targets. Even during the Cold War, spy sats were hands-off; the consequences of destroying them were greater than those of unwelcome surveillance. “The consensus,” Clark says, “was that anybody could look at anybody else.”
Nevertheless, the US military has spent decades designing weapons capable of killing other countries’ satellites. The crudest American ASAT test, code-named Starfish Prime, took place in 1962, when the US Air Force detonated a
1,4-megaton nuclear weapon at an altitude of 400 km. The explosion, which occurred about 1 300 km west of Hawaii, disabled at least six US and foreign satellites – roughly a third of the world’s low Earth orbit total. The resulting electromagnetic pulse knocked out 300 streetlights in Oahu. Clearly, nukes worked as ASAT weapons, but far too indiscriminately.
To develop a more surgical capability, the Air Force launched Project Mudflap, which was designed to destroy individual Soviet satellites with missiles. But inaccurate space-guidance systems plagued early tests. Then, on May 23, 1963, the Air Force pulled off a successful intercept with a modified Nike-Zeus ballistic missile launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It took out a rendezvous and docking target for Nasa’s Gemini missions at an altitude of
Over the next several decades the Air Force graduated to more sophisticated air-launched missiles that could hit tar- gets with far better accuracy. In 1985, the United States destroyed an American solar observation satellite using a three-stage, heat-seeking miniature vehicle fired from an F-15 fighter jet. That test, like the Chinese one earlier this year, used a kinetic kill vehicle that spewed debris into space. Funding for the programme was cancelled before the air-launched system could be perfected.
That same year, at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Air Force began operating the powerful Mid-Infrared Chemical Laser. In 1997, it was used to temporarily blind sensors on an Air Force missile-launch and tracking satellite. The sat remained intact; no debris was created. And no laser tests have been conducted since. However, the current US budget includes funding for a laser to be fired at a low Earth orbit sat from the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base, in New Mexico, later this year.
Some R3 billion has been spent in recent years to develop another sophisticated kill vehicle – a three-stage missile that smacks an enemy’s craft with a sheet of Mylar plastic, disabling it without producing any debris. It has yet to be fully tested, and would only work on satellites in low Earth orbit; communication and GPS sats are too high.
Destroying an adversary’s satellites has far-reaching implications. Do you take out only military sats or so-called civilian ones, too? Nearly every satellite has dual uses: A civilian weather satellite used for tracking hurricanes also could watch military movements. Many satell
ites are used by multiple nations. And once a nation disables an adversary’s satellites, it puts its own in peril. As Charles Vick, a senior analyst at Global-Security says, “It’s an act of war.”
Sending a message
So why did China risk provoking international hostility? The country’s government has been opaque. “The experiment is not targeted at any other country,” said a foreign ministry spokeswoman in Beijing.
Some experts think at least part of China’s motivation lies in an unclassified 2006 US report on the future of military activities in space. The document reaffirms that “The United States considers space capabilities… vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so… and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to US national interests.”
The United States “basically said it has the right to restrict the use of space to only its allies,” Clark says. Adds Jeffrey G Lewis, an arms control expert at the New America Foundation: “Much of the world was appalled at the tone of the policy. One British newspaper columnist basically said it made space the 51st state.”
In that context, some experts say, the Chinese test was an effort to force the issue, to show the United States the potential consequences of refusing to negotiate a favourable treaty on the military use of space. “The US was restricting all these arms treaties,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in security studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC, think tank. “For the Chinese, (the test) was an effort to deal from a position of strength.”
Pike believes China may have another rationale for flexing its space muscle: Taiwan. China has long yearned to reabsorb the breakaway island state, which the United States has pledged to defend. In the short term, Pike says, China has only two strategies that could lead to a Taiwan takeover. It could bluff the US in a nuclear confrontation, or it could try something altogether different: fire medium-range missiles from mobile launchers, just as it did in the January test, and take out America’s low-flying imaging satellites. Doing so might blind US military planners long enough for Chinese military forces to gain a foothold on the island.
“The Chinese stage these big amphibious exercises off Taiwan all the time. One day, maybe it’ll be real,” Pike says. “Either the US will get there quickly enough to stop them or the Chinese will win the race and there won’t be the American political resolve to kick them out. All the Chinese would need is time.” A half-dozen sats, Pike says – that’s all it would take. “Those satellites are low-hanging fruit. It’s a no-brainer.”
In that scenario, the ASAT test was not really about China showing the United States its capability. It was about China confirming that its own war plan is feasible.
The West’s trump card
The long-term ramifications of the test will take years to play out, but, for now, few observers think China scored any gains. “It was a mistake,” O’Hanlon says. It fuelled American hard-liners who want to restrict American technological co-operation with China. And, “It doesn’t help China’s case saying it isn’t a threatening military power,” Vick says. “It is a threat, and the test showed that.”
Whether the United States suddenly accelerates its ASAT capability beyond the testing phase remains to be seen. The country is in the midst of a war; budgets are already tight. Russia is not perceived as a threat and China has only 60 satellites – few of these are worth shooting down.
America’s most robust ASAT weapons were not designed for destroying satellites at all – they are missiles developed and operated by the Missile Defence Agency (MDA), formerly known as the Strategic Defence Initiative. All US ballistic missiles are actually dual-use, and although their ability to shoot down incoming rockets has been proven only in tests, it would be easy to direct them against any low Earth orbit satellite. Twenty-four MDA missiles are operational in Alaska and California, far more than would be needed, Pike says, to handle any immediate ASAT needs. There is, he says, “just nothing to shoot at.”
For now, that is. The militarisation of space has long been debated. With one blown-up old weather satellite, China has made the prospect of a new arms race far more likely. It showed the world that it is willing to go toe-to-toe up in the final frontier.
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US SAT kill arsenal
For the past 45 years, the US military has been developing weapons designed to destroy enemy satellites. Perhaps the most spectacular test – known as Starfish Prime – occurred on July 9, 1962, when a
1,4-megaton nuclear warhead was detonated 400 km above the Pacific. Radiation and electromagnetic pulses disabled at least six satellites and created an eerie, artificial glow (see image) for 20 minutes. – Davin Coburn
* The US conducted its only direct antisat test in 1985, when an F-15 climbed to 24 000 m, then fired a three-stage missile. It caught up to a 30 000 km/h Solwind solar observation satellite at an altitude of nearly 500 km over Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
* In 1997 the US Army hover-tested a kinetic energy weapon that could act like a space-age fly swatter. The kill vehicle extends a Mylar sheet to disable satellites without destroying them. The military found the technology too messy, and eventually cancelled the programme.
* The XSS-11 microsatellite isn’t an antisat – but it could be. First launched in April 2005, the spacecraft is designed to circumnavigate targets and relay diagnostic data. Some experts note that it wouldn’t be difficult to reprogram the craft to ram into enemy targets.
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It’s called the Kessler Syndrome – the point at which low Earth orbit becomes so crowded with debris that collisions render space unusable. “Debris accumulates over time and takes decades to deca