Space: China Goes Rogue

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January20, 2007: On January 11th, China launched an anti-satellite system (a KillSat, or Killer Satellite). The target was an old Chinese weather satellite, about 850 kilometers up. That's at the upper range of where most reconnaissance satellites hang out. The KillSat hit the weather bird, and the result was several million fragments. Most of the pieces are tiny, but about 800 are truly dangerous (at least four inches long, wide or in diameter). What China did was, in terms of technology, something the U.S. and Russia had demonstrated over three decades ago. No big deal, unless you actually use it. While China has now demonstrated its ability to destroy satellites (at the cost of a launcher and a maneuverable KillSat), it has also caused a major stink among the dozens of nations that own, or use (usually via leasing arrangements) the several hundred satellites in orbit. That's because this Chinese test increased the amount of dangerous space debris by about eight percent. That's a lot. By common agreement, nations that put up satellites, include the capability for the bird, once it has reached the end of its useful life, will slowly move closer to earth, until it burns up as it enters the thicker atmosphere. This approach leaves no debris, which can collide with other satellites, behind. Even a small piece of satellite debris can, when hitting another satellite at high speed, destroy, or fatally damage, it. 

Twenty years ago, Russia and the United States agreed to halt such tests, in order to reduce the amount of "space pollution" that threatened all current, and future space satellites. Moreover, there was the practical problem of cost. Having launchers standing by, to put a sufficient number of KillSats up, would be enormously expensive. And it would simply encourage others to do the same thing, which would cancel the original anti-satellite effort. China has ignored, so far, any criticism of its KillSat test, and dismissed the risk of starting an orbital arms race. But China has angered the other users of orbital space, and earned the contempt of those nations as well.

 


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