On January 11, 2006, EST, China launched a medium-range missile from its Xichang Space Center, or near it, which shot up to a point near its Feng Yun 1C weather satellite — in polar orbit since 1999 — at an elevation of 864 km (537 miles), and destroyed it. This missile had maneuvering capability and would have been guided by on-board navigation and tracking systems, or by command guidance from the ground, or by some combination of these systems. Near its intercept point, the missile, or a smaller short-range missile carried aloft by it, was pointed to the satellite and accelerated by a booster rocket motor so as to become a “kinetic kill vehicle” smashing the target satellite into a cloud of debris. This was China’s first successful test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) system, after three previous trials.
The entry of China into the ASAT space war declared by the Bush Administration expands what had been a game of solitaire into a poker match. This is the significant political result of the Chinese ASAT development. Much of what follows are selected facts to help us appreciate this change.
The United States has had ASAT technology since the mid-1980s, performing a test in 1985. One U.S. ASAT system is a missile carried under the wing of an F-15 fighter airplane, which can be directed to a target satellite.
From 1989, the U.S. has placed 31 Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) into low Earth orbit, at an elevation of 20,220 km. At any given moment, 24 satellites are operating in a constellation of: 6 Earth-centered orbital planes, each plane with 4 satellites, each satellite having an orbiting period of 11 hours 58 minutes (1/2 day), the orbital planes are all inclined at 55 degrees relative to the equator, and the orbital planes are separated from each other by 60 degrees of longitude. Users with a clear view of the sky will have access to a minimum of 4 satellites, and as many as 6 to 8. The satellites broadcast ranging and navigation signals. A user can listen to these signals (with a GPS receiver) and determine their own position, velocity and time.
Low Earth orbiting satellites, including GPS, imaging and communications, have become essential to the U.S. military. Uses include GPS navigation for ships, airplanes, troops and the pointing of guns and “smart bombs,” as well as for real-time surveillance. The threat of a rival’s ASAT technology to U.S. military capabilities and to international telecommunications (e.g., wireless electronic financial transactions — “stocks”) is obvious.
The GPS system is a wonderful technology that offers many benefits to people everywhere, if applied with a desire to improve knowledge and human development (as defined by the UN). How sad to think that its very nature could be used to destroy it and so much else, by a malevolent aggressor.
One response to this threat would be to corral the international community into a treaty demilitarizing space. Such a treaty would prohibit weapons technologies above a specified elevation, say 100 km, below which 99.99997 percent of the mass of the atmosphere resides. A brief digression on Earth’s atmosphere may be useful here.
Earth’s atmosphere extends out to about 1000 km, 75 percent of this mass being below 11 km, and 90 percent below 16 km. The peaks of the Himalayas extend to 8.8 km; commercial air travel occurs at 10 km; the ozone layer lies at 25 km, the ionosphere begins at 50 km; and meteors display themselves as they burn up at 50 to 80 km. The U.S. designates people who travel beyond 50 miles (80.5 km) as “astronauts,” the highest X-15 flight (in 1963) reached 108 km. The atmospheric effects (heating and shock waves) of “re-entry” become noticeable from 120 km (75 miles), down. Auroras occur from about 80 km to 200 km, and the Space Shuttle orbits at about 500 km.
Dominance of space, rather then diplomacy and multilateralism, is the response chosen by the United States to the growing international competition for access to space. In August of 2006, President George W. Bush asserted the U. S. right to “freedom of action in space,” stating a policy to “deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so.” This policy claims the right to “deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”
It now seems that the Bush Administration will have to determine the exact boundary of those “national interests” as regards China. The magnitude of interest payments to Chinese bondholders, and the quantity of U.S. currency held by Chinese banks may become a factor in these deliberations.
What’s in it for China? Politically, what does the Chinese ASAT test mean? Perhaps it is a signal urging restraint on U.S. expansionism (e.g., war with Iran), a warning deemed useful after November 7th. Perhaps it is a self-promotional signal to the international community, to elevate the esteem for China by those who shudder under the shadow of U.S. power. Perhaps it is a signal from an anxious major investor to a reckless corporate adventurer, to moderate actions that might jeopardize principal — it would not do for prized American war bonds to collapse. Perhaps it is a Chinese vote of confidence in a new space demilitarization regime. Perhaps, though this is very unlikely, it is an assertion of Chinese aggressiveness in a “space war.”
Since China has not admitted to this test — though it could hardly be expected to go unnoticed by the world’s astronomy and astronautics communities — it is clear that the message is not part of a clumsy display of bellicosity (see Bush’s statements above), but is instead a clear yet subdued statement on the protection of Chinese “national interests” as regards access to the Earth’s resources. The manner in which this statement has been made conveys the calmness of a rational policy that no doubt has had a careful and methodical development.
The “Pandora’s Box” aspect of the Chinese ASAT development is that it points to an easy “WMD” that might be developed by others, and deployed against U.S. and international space assets. Whereas the acquisition of nuclear weapons is most effectively throttled by the existing controls over the supplies of uranium and plutonium, exerted by the IAEA (UN) and the major nuclear states, the development of an ASAT capability rests on the integration of easily acquired technologies: aerospace electronics, computers and missiles.
Granted, the level of technology required may be beyond the grasp of the “basement hobbyist” and “do-it-yourselfer,” but it would not be beyond the reach of small nations, well-funded national groups, and corporations. The pejorative terms “rogue states” and “terrorist groups” have been applied to such entities (the specific mapping of pejorative to entity depending on bias). Explosives are not required — though rocket motors and (usually solid) fuel are. A hostile group that builds forty ASAT missiles — perhaps under 10 meters (33 feet) long — and can launch and maneuver them to the GPS constellation or to other military and communications satellites, probably using the GPS signals for navigation and tracking, would suddenly acquire tremendous political leverage. Perhaps this is just another James Bond movie plot, or perhaps it is a higher probability outcome for an aspiring sub-national political group that had thought to deliver a “dirty bomb” or a hijacked nuclear bomb into a major capitalist metropolis.
Whether an incidental consequence of the Chinese ASAT test, or a masterstroke of Chinese political calculation, the eruption of these possibilities into public discussion will fuel a torrent of briefings in the Pentagon and elsewhere, and shorten the psychological elevation that once existed below “the heavens” to the “war on terror.”
MANUEL GARCIA, Jr. is a physicist who studies fluid flow and energy, he can be reached at email@example.com