From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
China Tests Satellite Killer?
“China performed a successful anti-satellite weapons test” last week,
according to Aviation Week. In the trial, a ballistic missile, armed
with a non-explosive warhead, “destroy[ed] an aging Chinese weather
satellite target” over 500 miles above the Earth, U.S. intelligence
The news comes just a few months after reports of China testing
high-powered lasers to temporarily blind American orbiters. “If the
test is verified it will signify a major new Chinese military
capability,” AvWeek says. And it could be the spark that ignites an
arms race in space, analysts believe. Theresa Hitchens, with the Center
for Defense Information called it an “irresponsible and self-defeating
act” that will give “space hawks… more ammunition to take the United
States down a similarly dangerous path.”
Details emerging from space sources indicate that the Chinese Feng
Yun 1C (FY-1C) polar orbit weather satellite… was attacked by an ASAT
[anti-satellite] 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
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….
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.
Harvard University’s Jeffrey Lewis, a self-admitted skeptic about
China’s space ambitions, has been hearing from many sources in recent
months that “China’s ASAT work seem[s] to have been ramping up.” He
writes over at his blog, Arms Control Wonk:
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. 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
UPDATE 11:42 AM: Why would Beijing pull a stunt like this? The China
Matters blog has a theory. Meanwhile, one keen space-watcher notes
that, if this anti-sat weapon was really “kinetic” — i.e.,
hit-to-kill, non-explosive — instead of a plain ol’ exploding weapon,
that’s extremely bad news. That means the booster rocket has to be very
accurate “in order to deliver the kill vehicle to the desired initial
trajectory…. Then the kill vehicle needs to tweak its trajectory into
a precise collision course using on-board propulsion and either
on-board target tracking or… command guidance from the ground.”
That’s no mean task.
Satellite Killer’s Big Impact
There’s been immediate fallout — both physical and political — from
China’s satellite killer test.
Debris from the orbital collision has already been spotted, the M-T
Milcom blog notes. “As of this writing NORAD has officially cataloged
32 objects… that now pollute a vital area of space (sun-synchronous
polar orbit).” The picture to the right is of a few of ’em.
sat_orbits005.jpg”There are over 125 satellites that operate in this
portion of space,” the M-T blog observes. Those include reconnaissance
satellites, like the Lacrosse and Advanced Keyhole orbiters, as well as
weather-monitors, like the Defense Meteorological Satellites Program
series. In other words, this test directly affects the American
military’s ability look for terrorist hideouts, and survey a potential
battlefield. These are not small matters. “Our space assets are the
first asset on the scene,” GlobalSecurity.org’s John Pike tells the AP.
“They are absolutely central to why we are a superpower – a signature
component to America’s style of warfare.”
Frequent Defense Tech commenter Robot Economist, now with his own blog,
warns that “this situation has the potential of becoming the next
Katyusha rocket or IED problem for the United States.” Even the
International Space Station could be at risk. That said, RE reminds us
that “it is unlikely that [China’s] success… translates into any sort
of immediately fieldable capability.”
If the spotty record of our ground-based missile interceptors
demonstrate anything, it is the difficulty of intercepting even
predictable space targets… [And] the Chinese had a pretty good
handicap on this test.
Robert Farley sees the anti-satellite trial as “first and foremost… a
deterrent move aimed at the United States.”
The US military isn’t completely dependent on spy satellites (in
case of war, the Taiwan Straits would be overflown by enough spy and
communications aircraft to make the satellites redundant), but
destroying them is a way of chipping away at US capability, and thus
indicating that China can inflict real costs in case of a US
intervention in a militarized China-Taiwan dispute. The public way in
which the Chinese have carried out this test, as well as earlier
“blinding” tests, and the recent submarine-stalks-carrier debacle
indicates to me that they’re as serious as possible about showing the
US their capabilities, which is key to a deterrent strategy. Also,
Chinese anti-satellite capabilities don’t have to be targeted against
US military satellites; the Chinese may threaten commercial satellites
as well, which would help to metastasize the costs of any US
No wonder, then, that governments around the world are protesting the
move. With one exception, apparently: Russia. Arms Control Wonk
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov commented to reporters that
he has heard reports of the Chinese test, but thinks that the rumors
are quite abstract and are exaggerated.
In an interview, vice-preseident of the Russian Academy of
geopolitcal affairs, General Leonid Ivashov, said that he thinks the
Chinese used Russian developments for making their antisatellite
The UCS Satellite Database is a listing of operational satellites
currently in orbit around Earth. It is available as both a downloadable
Excel file and in a tab-delimited text format, and in a version
(tab-delimited text) in which the “Name” column contains only the
official name of the satellite in the case of government and military
satellites, and the most commonly used name in the case of commercial
and civil satellites. The database is updated roughly quarterly. Our
intent in producing the database is to create a research tool for
specialists and non-specialists alike by collecting open-source
information on operational satellites and presenting it in a format
that can be easily manipulated for research and analysis. The database
includes basic information about more than 800 satellites and their
orbits, but does not contain the detailed information necessary to
locate individual satellites.
The UCS Satellite Database is the only free, comprehensive compilation
of active satellites in an easy to manipulate, commonly-used database
Users can find information about a particular satellite; identify sets
of satellites having a common characteristic, such as altitude or
mission; and sort or aggregate data about the whole population of
satellites. Users can quickly answer questions such as
* How many satellites does a given country have in orbit, and what
are they used for?
* How many satellites are used for military purposes versus
* Which countries have earth-observing satellites?
* At what altitudes do most satellites orbit?
For example, the database allows a user to determine the relative
numbers of military and non-military satellites operated by the United
States and other countries, as is illustrated in the figure below.
The database contains 21 types of data for each satellite, including
technical information about each satellite (mass, power, launch date,
expected lifetime) and its orbit (apogee, perigee, inclination, and
period), as well as what the satellite is used for, and who owns,
operates, and built the satellite.
We welcome corrections, additions, and suggestions. These can be
emailed to the database manager at SatelliteData [at] ucsusa [dot] org
DEFENSE METEOROLOGICAL SATELLITES PROGRAM