I noticed this blurb on SEESAT today:
I’ve been hearing murmurings around the community here in Washington that there may have been an extremely energetic event (satellite break-up?) in the last week or so in the LEO altitude range (700-1000 KM). “An enormous amount of debris” in the range of 1000 pieces may have been created.
I’ve been hearing the same murmurings—and my sources tell me that a major defense publication is working on the story. So, I suppose it is time to mention what is now an open secret inside the US defense community. Massive breakups are unusual. There are pretty much two causes of satellite break-ups: a debris strike or an anti-satellite test.
The defense publication is said to be said to report that this was a Chinese ASAT test.
Taking a look at the Russian and Chinese satellites in that orbit (The two states are most likely to conduct an ASAT test), I see only half a dozen candidates that might have been shot down and one stands out: The FY-1C, an obsolete Chinese meteorological satellite launched in 1999.
Looking at the data at Heaven’s Above, NORAD hasn’t updated the orbital elements for FY-1C since Friday—all the other candidate Russian or Chinese satellites have been updated since then.
(Oh, and if you look at the SPACETRACK data, there are lots more reasons to think this is the one. But that is about all I can say on that subject.)
My guess is that when NORAD updates the data again, we are going to seeing LOTS of debris. (Keep checking Heaven’s Above.)
I spoke with a couple of wonky types who tell me that one of the passes on Thursday—before the satellite dramatically changed orbit—would have taken the satellite over central China during what was early evening on the US east coast—about the same time a visible murmur ran through the Forum on Space and Defense in Colorado Springs.
That, by the way, would be near several of China’s satellite launch centers, which might also host a direct ascent ASAT program.
Guess that is why GoogleEarth blacks out the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.
In my forthcoming book, Minimum Means of Reprisal, I warned that China might move toward ASATs as a counter to the development of US missile defense and conventional strike capabilities—although I thought we might have more time than this. (To be precise, I argued it would happen for internal Chinese reasons, rather than as an action-reaction spiral, something I thought might be a slow process).
Although I’ve been skeptical about the quality of our intel on whether China had a direct ascent ASAT program (though not the capability), over the past six months (and especially since the reported laser tracking of a US satellite), lots of not-crazy folks have been saying China’s ASAT work seemed to have been ramping up.
If China has conducted an ASAT test, this is extremely bad. I had been hoping that the Bush Administration would push for a ban on anti-satellite testing, either in the form of a code of conduct or some rules of road. The Bush folks, however, have been fond of saying that wasn’t necessary, because “there is no arms race in space.”
Well, we have one now, instigated by an incredibly short-sighted Chinese government. (I suspect this test will have also created a massive debris problem).
The United States and other space-faring states should demarche the Chinese government for what is a stupid, clumsy and short-sighted decision.
Although this idiotic move by the Chinese government will demonstrate why we don’t want hit-to-kill ASAT testing in orbit—that will be a long-term recognition. In the short-term, the Chinese will simply not be credible partners in efforts to keep space peaceful. Moreover, other countries could follow suit with their own anti-satellite programs, including the United States.
This is a very disappointing day.