Jeffrey LewisChinese Test ASAT?

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.


  1. Jonathan McDowell (History)

    Actually, major debris events are more commonly caused by residual fuel in rocket stages causing an explosion. But that doesn’t alter the substance of what you say. I agree, this is bad news.

  2. yathrib

    You’re talking about an earth-launched non-nuclear ballistic missile? Was there a corresponding launch noted? Haven’t non-nuclear ASAT missiles been written off as ineffective in favor of lasers or space-based ASAT weapons?

    Can you provide more background details about the program, or other sources confirming this event?

  3. Greg Schnippel (History)

    Further details online as of an hour ago on Aviation Week & Space Technology:

  4. Jeffrey Lewis

    Here is the full text of the “major defense publication” story. The details are basically the same, a direct ascent ASAT launched from Xichang shot down the FY-1c satellite, creating a massive amount of debris.

    Chinese Test Anti-Satellite WeaponBy Craig Covault/Aviation Week & Space Technology01/17/2007 07:45:59 PM

    U. S. intelligence agencies believe China performed a successful anti-satellite (asat) weapons test at more than 500 mi. altitude Jan. 11 destroying an aging Chinese weather satellite target with a kinetic kill vehicle launched on board a ballistic missile.

    The Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, NASA and other government organizations have a full court press underway to obtain data on the alleged test, Aviation Week & Space Technology will report in its Jan. 22 issue.

    If the test is verified it will signify a major new Chinese military capability.

    Neither the Office of the U. S. Secretary of Defense nor Air Force Space Command would comment on the attack, which followed by several months the alleged illumination of a U. S. military spacecraft by a Chinese ground based laser.

    China’s growing military space capability is one major reason the Bush Administration last year formed the nation’s first new National Space Policy in ten years, Aviation Week will report.

    “The policy is designed to ensure that our space capabilities are protected in a time of increasing challenges and threats,” says Robert G. Joseph, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the U. S. State Dept. ” This is imperative because space capabilities are vital to our national security and to our economic well being,” Joseph said in an address on the new space policy at the National Press Club in Washington D. C.

    Details emerging from space sources indicate that the Chinese Feng Yun 1C (FY-1C) polar orbit weather satellite launched in 1999 was attacked by an asat system launched from or near the Xichang Space Center.

    The attack is believe to have occurred as the weather satellite flew at 530 mi. altitude 4 deg. west of Xichang located in Sichuan province. Xichang is a major Chinese space launch center.

    Although intelligence agencies must complete confirmation of the test, the attack is believed to have occurred at about 5:28 p.m. EST Jan. 11. U. S. intelligence agencies had been expecting some sort of test that day, sources said.

    U. S. Air Force Defense Support Program missile warning satellites in geosynchronous orbit would have detected the Xichang launch of the asat kill vehicle and U. S. Air Force Space Command monitored the FY-1C orbit both before and after the exercise.

    The test, if it occurred as envisioned by intelligence source, could also have left considerable space debris in an orbit used by many different satellites.

    USAF radar reports on the Chinese FY-1C spacecraft have been posted once or twice daily for years, but those reports jumped to about 4 times per day just before the alleged test.

    The USAF radar reports then ceased Jan. 11, but then appeared for a day showing “signs of orbital distress”. The reports were then halted again. The Air Force radars may well be busy cataloging many pieces of debris, sources said.

    Although more of a “policy weapon” at this time, the test shows that the Chinese military can threaten the imaging reconnaissance satellites operated by the U. S., Japan, Russia, Israel and Europe.

    The Republic of China also operates a small imaging spacecraft that can photograph objects as small as about 10 ft. in size, a capability good enough to count cruise missiles pointed at Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. The Taiwanese in the past have also leased capability on an Israeli reconnaissance satellite.

  5. John F. Opie (History)

    Hi – Long time lurker.

    This will be very interesting to see how liability develops for such activity: if debris from the test starts taking down one satellite after another, will the Chinese pay, or will they basically tell everyone to go f off?

  6. China Hand (History)

    Very interesting. On my site I blogged thusly: This test may be more in the nature of a calculated outrage—like the North Korean nuclear test—an attempt to reset the agenda and an announce that the status quo ante is no longer acceptable and China’s new pretensions and priorities as a world and space power must be accommodated.

    Maybe the Chinese will even promote the idea of sovereign skies—that a country has the right to control what satellites cross its borders and compromise its security…

  7. davesgonechina (History)

    Hey Jeff,

    to those of us unskilled in the art of reading satellite data, what would you look for to determine if FY-1C is now a cloud of debris?

  8. Cinnamon Whirl (History)

    Two points: 1) I can’t see the Bush admin. pushing for anything that will restrict their ability to conduct weapons tests in space.2) The chinese gov. isnt going anywhere, so they tend to think long term, not short. If they conducted a test, they had a reason for it.

  9. Charles Darke (History)

    It’s strange that China is being painted as the ‘bad guy’ here when the US has clearly stated it’s aggressive space policies. See follow URLs for links to documents.,14493,1345460,00.html

    What also struck me was the use of language. Referring to ‘attacks’ on China’s own satellites whereas the the US missile shield tests are described as ‘successful intercepts’.

    The weaponisation of space was probably inevitable. But I think the way forward is to have co-operation and dialogue rather than taking a path of isolation and unilateralism (c.f. Kyoto, ABM, Landmines etc.)

  10. David Wright (History)

    My colleague Wang Ting and I have been writing a paper on debris production by kinetic-energy ASATs. If this satellite in fact was destroyed by colliding with another object at high speed, here is what you would expect, based on the NASA breakup model and Wang Ting’s calculations of orbital lifetimes.

    The FY-1C satellite appears to be 750 kg and was orbiting at about 850 km in a sun-synchronous orbit. According to the NASA model, if the satellite collided at orbital speed with an object having a mass of more than about 1 kg, that collision would completely fragment the satellite into debris particles. This breakup would lead to nearly 800 debris fragments of size 10 cm or larger, nearly 40,000 debris fragments with size between 1 and 10 cm, and roughly 2 million fragments of size 1 mm or larger. Roughly half of the debris fragments with size 1 cm or larger would stay in orbit for more than a decade.

  11. Guy in Colorado

    Sad day indeed.

    However, the gaunlet has been thrown.

    As far as this under-30, Republican voter is concerned: game on.

    Ramp up our space defense technology full tilt. Between this and the laser attack, those Chicoms have just handed us a silver platter of justification.

  12. Brains (History)

    The idea of sovereign skies is laughable – you don’t need to be within some obscure border when your vantage point is 500+ miles up 🙂 Technology can only take us so far. Ultimately it all comes back to you and I as far as war/peace is concerned.

  13. Dave

    Am I the only one who thinks you guys sound like hypocrites? The U.S. has had this capability for years. We have thousands of nuclear weapons. We are still trying to build a missile defense system to render everyone else’s missiles obsolete.

    I’m American (I live in DC, actually, but I don’t work on the Hill), but America shouldn’t expect to be the only country with an interest in space weapons.

  14. Jesse (History)

    “Well, we have [an arms race in space] now, instigated by an incredibly short-sighted Chinese government…”

    “In the short-term, the Chinese will simply not be credible partners in efforts to keep space peaceful.”

    I believe that the US government has been persuing a policy of militarizing space for a long time. Thus, we haven’t been credible partners to anyone wanting to keep space peaceful. This sort of weapon test would seem to be, in part at least, a response to that. I don’t think that the proper response of the US government should be to ramp up the “arms race in space.” Maybe, instead, it’s time to negotiate a halt to all military projects in space for all countries.

  15. TS (History)

    As Jeffrey mentioned in his post, China also has a laser anti-satellite program, which they’ve tested against our satellites:

  16. Gronker

    Mango I think you miss the point. The way they “tested” their “defensive” weapon is the issue, not that they have it. My (our) problem is that they just littered a part of orbit with little pieces of chinese satelite, some of which will return to earth in an uncontrolled and hard to predict manner. This is pretty irresponsible, and shows a short-sighted view of both policy and technological prowess.

  17. DoubtingThomas

    “So having the ability to defend yourself from future USA technology is bad?”

    Knee-jerk responses to well-thought-out and well-written opinion is always a dangerous tack.

    This was a move that seems guaranteed to lead to a build-up of space-related weaponry. In what way is that not a bad result?

  18. TS (History)

    >I dont see how such a ‘defensive weapon’ is a bad thing.

    Defensive? I think not. This anti-satellite system could easily be used in coordination with an offensive action: invading Taiwan.

    What happens if China can knock out all satellites monitoring the South and East China Seas, as well as those military satellites necessary for the US to defend Taiwan?

  19. CCTang (History)

    Remarkable mixture of intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy being dispensed by some here.

    The United States had ample opportunities, as the world’s sole superpower, to push across multi-lateral restrictions on the militarization of space. It did precisely the opposite; it explicitly refused to support such measures, shooting down multi-lateral proposals supported by the other major space powers.

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    It’d be sheer negligence on the part of the Chinese government to ignore the writing on the wall: the United States had no intention of “sacrificing” her interests in space for the interests of any other nation. China had two choices: assume that the United States would always act as a benevolent protector of Chinese interests, or take steps to make sure that she could protect her own interests.

    In terms of the concerns about “debris”, other than day-old observations + untested hypothetical models… on what basis do you claim China has acted negligently? Are you really sure the authorities have the ability to launch this weapon, but did not have the ability to accurately model and assess the likely outcome from the launch?

  20. Vilhelm Sjoberg (History)

    Spreading debris in orbit is of course undesirable, but like some of the other commenters, I find it rather outlandish to claim that space was “peaceful” until now. As a piece of triva, the bombs that hit the Chinese embassy in 1999 were GPS-guided…

  21. mike (History)

    “Massive breakups are unusual. There are pretty much two causes of satellite break-ups: a debris strike or an anti-satellite test.”

    aren’t we all jumping the gun a bit here? Shouldn’t any missile launch have been duly noted by DEFSMAC?

    Also seems unlikely the Chinese would risk global outrage over a)debris and b) upping the ante like that with no overt provocation.

    I’m in the wait for more details camp on this one.

  22. Jeffrey Lewis

    Okay folks. No offense to those of you who have submitted comments, but this is getting out of control.

    We have a couple of flamewars starting, so I am basically only going to approve posts that are substantive, such as the clarification offered by Jonathan McDowell or the calculation by David Wright.

    In the meantime, I am going to remove the posts that engage in ad hominem attacks or those that responded to them. Just because I took down your post, don’t take it too hard. These things are totally idiosyncratic and based on a whim.

    Oh, and not having an e-mail address will probably reduce my liklihood of approving posts.

  23. Laura Grego (History)

    >Actually, major debris events are more commonly caused by residual fuel in rocket stages causing an explosion.

    Hi Jonathan, in Jeffrey’s defense, when he wrote

    >There are pretty much two causes of satellite break-ups

    I believe he was using “satellite” in the sense of payload and not the sense of object in orbit. We had a conversation about that very thing yesterday.I don’t believe any payloads have exploded on orbit, have they?

  24. Allen Thomson (History)

    > I believe he was using “satellite” in the sense of payload and not the sense of object in orbit. We had a conversation about that very thing yesterday.I don’t believe any payloads have exploded on orbit, have they?

    There have been some Soviet/Russian spysats that have come forecefully apart, apparently deliberately. We know from post-Soviet papers that their early spysats had destruct charges, and the practice may have, oddly, continued.

    But non-intentional satellite explosions—there were one or two apparent battery bursts in GEO, but not many at all.

  25. Michael Shirley (History)

    This isn’t something to become all that alarmed about. The fact that China has ballistic missiles and a space launch capability, also implies the capability to do ASAT type operations. And a kinetic kill type weapon isn’t nearly as bad as those nuclear armed Thors that we had on Johnston Island years ago for that purpose.

    More to the point, we’ve been putting together capabilities intended to counter ASATs for years. Originally, there used to be some Titan IIs tasked with secure military space launch at Davis-Monthan AFB. When those were withdrawn, it was because they were replaced with the Pegasus air launched vehicle, that was originally developed on DARPA contract.

    Everybody who has interests in space, has been quietly developing methods of maintaining the survivability of their space assets and at least theoretical studies on how to take out the other guy’s for a long time now.

    So, rather than getting a case of the vapors, I think that it would be a lot smarter to take a step back and see how this plays out.

  26. Jonathan McDowell (History)

    Laura – OK, that wasn’t clear. As Allen notes, some battery explosions (also in LEO, a NOAA satellite) and deliberate high explosive, but not residual fuel issues to date.

  27. Jian Liu

    MK: Once you blow something up in space, the debris lingers. It isn’t like a sea battle where the remains of two warships sink to the bottom. The last anti-satellite weapons test was carried out in 1985 by the United States. We took aim at an old, dying Air Force satellite—just as a test—and it created 200 pieces of debris that were large enough to track. The last piece of debris finally left low Earth orbit 17 years later, and one of the pieces came within 1 mile of the International Space Station and could have done significant damage. Debris is the single greatest threat to the space shuttle.

  28. Dwayne Day (History)

    “And a kinetic kill type weapon isn’t nearly as bad as those nuclear armed Thors that we had on Johnston Island years ago for that purpose.”

    That system was retired in 1972. Not relevant to the current debate.

  29. Dwayne Day (History)

    “Between this and the laser attack…”

    ”…China also has a laser anti-satellite program, which they’ve tested against our satellites.”

    No, this is not proven. The initial report and subsequent comments by administration officials never referred to either an “anti-satellite laser” OR “an attack on a US satellite.” They were in fact quite precise. This fact, plus the lack of a public US complaint, strongly indicates that China never attacked a US satellite. Instead, what they did was use a laser rangefinder on it.

    Ask yourself this simple question: if China did attack a US satellite, where was the official outrage?

  30. JimO (History)

    I would like to draw your attention to my analysis at, atMsnbc (Oberg): Space war debate takes new turn—Updated: 5:53 p.m. CT Jan 18, 2007

  31. JimO (History)

    I invite you to check out my MSNBC analysis where I suggest the nature of the true target of the launch:

    Msnbc (Oberg): Space war debate takes new turn

    Analysis // By James Oberg // NBC News space analyst

    Special to MSNBC

    Updated: 5:53 p.m. CT Jan 18, 2007

  32. Chungta Hsieh (History)

    Surpringingly to see people called this as “sad day”. I guess the “sad day” is not something new, United States is the country has made the “sad day” happened many times before the Chinese ASAT test.

    2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) stated “A key objective … is not only to ensure US ability to exploit space for military purpose, but also as required to deny an aversary’s ability to do so.” New York Times reported the Air Force asked Bush Administration for funding the space weapon programs in May 2005. United States has voted or abstained many times to the similiar UN resolutions on the prevention of outer space arms race. To be specific, United States was the only nation voted such a resolution in October 2006. In August 2006, President Bush authorized a new National Space Policy that clearly stated “The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests”Anup Shah of gives a very good detailed account on the Militarization and Weaponization of Outer Space.

  33. Charles Darke (History)
  34. walawala

    US did it too. read this, just replace US with China to see how you feel:
    The policy directive insists, “Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.” Instead of negotiating limitations on threatening space activities, the administration plans to pursue various self-defense measures such as hardening, encryption, and maneuvering. U.S. officials also warn that the United States will respond to any “interference” with its space capabilities. Although specific retaliatory measures are not discussed, in August 2004 the U.S. Air Force published a doctrine on “Counterspace Operations” which affirmed its readiness to conduct “operations to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy adversary space capabilities” in order to maintain U.S. space superiority.

  35. Michael Shirley (History)

    With all due respect Mr. Day, it is relevant. You have emerging nuclear powers that can’t do what we currently do, but they can do what we used to do. So, while the old Thors were taken out of service back in 72, the fact of the matter is that anybody with nukes and rockets might well use such a system at least as an interim method of space denial. And given our current dependance on things like GPS, I wouldn’t put it past somebody who has their back to the wall to use it.

    More to the point, since we really don’t know what capabilities the Chinese have, or how they propose to use them, use of an IRBM with a nuclear weapon for space denial, has to remain on the table as one of the things to be considered, even if it’s a low probability weapon.

    In the end, there’s no weapon that’s truly obsolete if there’s somebody out there who’s desperate enough to use it.

  36. smoothn00dle (History)

    Almost a week, Chinese hasn’t release a statement. It is seems like even China don’t know there is a test. From what I read, most is just speculation from the data on the radar. What is happening here?

  37. Michael Shirley (History)

    I don’t believe that the Chinese are going to say much of anything. Sometimes, letting the act speak for itself, is more eloquent than any press release or diplomatic communique that might be drafted.