China appears to be getting ready to do further testing of its anti-satellite weaponry. The last test that they performed, the destruction of an old weather satellite, was very controversial because of the huge quantity of new space junk that it created.
Space junk poses a significant risk to spacecraft and orbiting satellites, and it has been growing in quantity in recent years. The most recent intel suggests that China may perform another test of their weaponry, and potentially create more space junk, as soon as next week.
Rumors of such a test have been spreading throughout the defense and intelligence organizations of the US over the past few months, according to Gregory Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists. China performed their tests in 2007, and 2010, on January 11th, so that remains a reasonable guess on when they will this year.
“Given these high-level administration concerns, and past Chinese practice, there seems to be a strong possibility China will conduct an ASAT test within the next few weeks,” Kulacki wrote in a blog post on January 4th. “What kind of test and what the target might be is unclear.”
“In the 2007 test, China destroyed one of its own defunct weather satellites at an altitude of 530 miles, spawning about 3,000 new pieces of space junk. The 2010 operation used similar technology to take out an object that was not in orbit.”
It’s not certain that the upcoming ASAT test will destructive, it could be a different kind test, or none at all.
“There are different types of technologies that can be used as ASAT weapons, and a satellite may not be destroyed at all,” he wrote today. “The planned test could be of the same technology as the 2007 and 2010 tests but in a missile defense or flyby mode, or a test of technology that doesn’t destroy a satellite.”
“Some U.S. officials suspect China may want to go higher than it did in either 2007 or 2010, targeting an object 12,000 miles or so above Earth’s surface. This ability to reach medium-Earth orbit (MEO) could theoretically put the constellation of U.S. Global Positioning System navigational satellites at risk.”
“But there are good reasons for China not to destroy a satellite at this orbit, including that China plans to use this part of space,” Kulacki wrote. “Creating debris, as it now understands, would threaten its own satellites. Over the next several years, China plans to place more than 20 new navigational satellites in MEO.”
“Kulacki urges the Obama Administration to attempt to dissuade China from conducting any more destructive ASAT tests. Both the United States and the Soviet Union abandoned such tests as their space programs matured, he notes.”
“Hopefully, China will eventually come to a similar conclusion,” Kulacki wrote. “Beginning a meaningful bilateral dialogue on space security between the United States and China could hasten the day.”
Some more information on space junk:
“Space debris, also known as orbital debris, space junk, and space waste, is the collection of defunct objects in orbit around Earth. This includes everything from spent rocket stages, old satellites, fragments from disintegration, erosion, and collisions. Since orbits overlap with new spacecraft, debris may collide with operational spacecraft.”
“Currently about 19,000 pieces of debris larger than 5 cm are tracked, with another 300,000 pieces smaller than 1 cm below 2000 km altitude. For comparison, ISS orbits in the 300-400 km range and both the 2009 collision and 2007 antisat test events occurred at between 800-900 km.”
“Most space debris is less than 1 cm (0.39 in), including dust from solid rocket motors, surface degradation products such as paint flakes, and coolant released by RORSAT nuclear powered satellites. Impacts of these particles cause erosive damage, similar to sandblasting. Damage can be reduced with “Whipple shield”, which, for example, protects some parts of the International Space Station. However, not all parts of a spacecraft may be protected in this manner, e.g. solar panels and optical devices (such as telescopes, or star trackers), and these components are subject to constant wear by debris and micrometeoroids. The flux of space debris is greater than meteroids below 2000 km altitude for most sizes circa 2012.”
“Safety from debris over 10 cm (3.9 in), comes from maneuvering a spacecraft to avoid a collision. If a collision occurs, resulting fragments over 1 kg (2.2 lb) can become an additional collision risk. As the chance of collision is influenced by the number of objects in space, there is a critical density where the creation of new debris occurs faster than the various natural forces remove them. Beyond this point a runaway chain reaction may occur that pulverizes everything in orbit, including functioning satellites. Called the ‘Kessler syndrome’, there is debate if the critical density has already been reached in certain orbital bands.”
Image Credits: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office; Debris via Wikimedia Commons