The Chinese Satellite Killer
RIA Novosti political commentator
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Jan 29, 2007
I think everyone will agree that actions speak louder than words. You may shout and wave your hands in a family spat as long as you like but when the first plate is flung down and breaks into pieces, the "contesting sides," as a rule, pause to await further trouble now that the danger line has been crossed.
Something like that happened on the night of January 11-12, after China launched a rocket apparently carrying a kinetic interceptor, which reportedly destroyed the outdated but still capable weather satellite Feng Yun 1C. The room for speculation about what happened is quickly approaching zero, however. It is almost certain now that this was the first Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon, and no official statement from Beijing so far is likely to change anything.
The main result is that the leading space powers' agreement not to militarize space despite their loud and sometimes threatening pledges to the contrary has been upset.
It is not important how successful the test was and how well it met its objectives. Information coming from tracking equipment will answer all technical questions. This is now the concern of the world's intelligence agencies.
But already it is possible to discuss both technical aspects of the latest "Chinese miracle" and to foresee some effects of the test.
American intelligence believes it was a successful Chinese test of anti-satellite weapons. Launched from the Xichang range, the medium-range ballistic missile carried a kinetic interceptor in place of a warhead, which in a direct hit destroyed a weather satellite put into a polar orbit in 1999 at an altitude of about 860 kilometers.
An undisputed fact is that we now have a cloud of debris in orbit which is expected, according to some sources, to last a quarter of a century and pose a threat to space vehicles. It is this debris that raises the first question in a series of uncertainties about the tests: Where does it come from?
In the view of James Oberg, a noted American expert on space, the blasting of the satellite is more metaphorical than anything else. Actually, the targeted satellite merely stops functioning, which also happened to an American target in an anti-satellite weapons tests in 1985.
At about the same time, the U.S.S.R. destroyed one of its own satellites in a similar test. The resulting cloud of debris kept the Americans worried for a long time. It was ultimately established that the interceptor was itself detonated and broke into shrapnel-like pieces.
But a satellite can still explode if hit by a foreign body, and scientists can decide from the amount of energy released and the pattern of scattered debris whether the satellite was blasted from outside or inside.
Yet the aging satellite, designed in the late 1970s, has nothing in it to detonate. The craft is not equipped with a propulsion unit and, as a result, carries no explosive fuel. Its attitude control system uses micro-thrusters burning compressed nitrogen.
The rocket itself, however, was certain to have a self-destruct system with the express purpose of blasting the payload to smithereens in an emergency. In other words, everything depends on what is found in the vast amount of information from ground- and space-based surveillance systems. So far the U.S. Air Force is keeping mum about the main thing - what occurred to the Chinese satellite.
It is one thing if the satellite is shattered into a myriad of parts, and another if it is intact but knocked out of action. The result would be loss of stabilization and drastic changes in the orientation of its orbit.
There is one more aspect bearing on the debris and concerned more with ethics than technology. Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a group that studies national security, called the tests very un-Chinese.
"There is nothing subtle about this," he said. "They've created a huge debris cloud that will last a quarter century or more. It's at a higher elevation than the test we did in 1985, and for that one the last trackable debris took 17 years to clear out."
Let us acknowledge this fine insight from the Americans and try to answer the question that always arises when Chinese space achievements are mentioned. Was there any outside help?
(to be continued)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.
Source: RIA Novosti
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