Worst Single Debris Event Ever

THE HEADLINE says a lot, so let’s start with that: “China ASAT Test Called Worst Single Debris Event Ever.” This is the lead into an article in the Feb. 12, 2007, issue of the authoritative McGraw-Hill publication Aviation Week & Space Technology. The term “ASAT” refers to the Chinese test of an anti-satellite system.

Wind and Cloud and Orbiting Debris

As you may know, China conducted an ASAT test on Jan. 11 of this year, destroying a weather satellite launched in 1999, designated Feng Yun 1C (FY-1C; Feng Yun translates as “wind and cloud”), then orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 537 miles. The January experiment (or the attack, depending on your perspective) was carried out with a kinetic kill vehicle launched by China’s Second Artillery Regiment using a small Chinese ballistic missile. News of the Chinese ASAT test was first revealed to the public by Aviation Week on Jan. 17.

A U.S. Defense official who reviewed the intelligence about China’s ASAT test said that the launch was detected by the United States in the early evening of Jan. 11, which would have been early morning on Jan. 12 in China. American satellites tracked the launch and trajectory of the medium-range Chinese ballistic missile toward the known orbit of the weather satellite, a sun-synchronous circular orbit inclined 98.6 degrees. U.S. space radars later recorded an expanding debris field. In particular, U.S. Air Force radar reports noted what were called “signs of orbital distress” in the days after Jan. 11. By Jan. 18, the radar data showed debris where the FY-1C spacecraft had been orbiting before.

Dr. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard who is a specialist in tracking space debris, said the FY-1C satellite was a cube measuring 4.6 feet on each side (1.5 meters), and that its solar panels extended about 28 feet (9 meters). He added that although the target satellite was launched in 1999, according to Chinese sources it was due for retirement. Still, the satellite appeared to be “electronically alive,” making it an ideal target. “If it stops working,” said McDowell, “you know you have a successful hit.”

Someone Should Tell the Foreign Ministry

If it stops working, you have a hit? Perhaps someone from the Second Artillery Regiment should tell the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Initially, Liu Jianchao, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, declined to confirm or deny that China had conducted an ASAT test, let alone destroyed one of its satellites. “So far,” he said on Jan. 20, “I have not been informed about it by relevant authorities. China has always stood for the peaceful uses of outer space and against introducing weapons into outer space.” Yes, of course.

Retired Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, the former head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s International Military Cooperation Department, was more forthcoming. He stated to Moscow News that the Chinese weapon was “modeled on the Soviet IS-1 missile designed to destroy satellites that was developed in the 1970s.” So we have the Russians to thank for this? Pass the vodka.

In the U.S., some commentators (the usual suspects, of course) downplayed the significance of the test, saying China apparently used “simple technology.” A so-called “national security analyst” named Laura Grego, of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., said, “It’s pretty low-tech. It’s essentially like throwing a rock at someone.”

Throwing a Rock? Not Quite

Throwing a rock, huh? Well, it depends whom you ask. “I think that the Chinese ASAT test is very troubling,” stated U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “And perhaps what is as troubling as the technical achievement is how one interprets it as a part of…[the Chinese] strategic outlook, and how they would anticipate using that kind of a capability in the event of a conflict, and the consequences for us of that.” So according to one of the key U.S. Defense officials, who happens to be a former director of Central Intelligence, the Chinese ASAT test is a “technical achievement” with “strategic” impact. Maybe it is not “like throwing a rock” at someone. Maybe it is less like a rock and more like rocket science.

All Quiet — Lately, That Is

Development of ASAT technology began in the 1950s, in both the U.S. and former Soviet Union, not long after ballistic missiles began to fly. The first technical approach to the ASAT issue was to use air-launched missiles, because the basic technology was better understood. The U.S. began tests of an ASAT system in 1959, but initial results were poor and the first test launch missed its target by over three miles. “Throwing a rock” at someone can be hard work. After further failures, the U.S. ASAT project was halted in 1963.

We do not know a lot about the earliest Soviet efforts, due to the secrecy of that former regime. But not to be outdone by the U.S., the Soviets began to pour significant resources into an ASAT program in 1967 and actually built, tested, and deployed ASAT weapons starting in 1976. The Soviet ASAT system eschewed closing with a kill vehicle to a direct hit against the target, and instead was based on moving an explosive device into the vicinity of the target, and then blasting pellets towards the target satellite in a shotgun-like manner. This kind of ASAT device created a significant debris cloud in orbital space. Several Soviet ASAT tests were performed at relatively low orbits, and these tests created several significant debris clouds.

In response to the Soviet effort of the late 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. revived its own ASAT program in 1977. U.S. Defense contractor Vought developed an ASAT to attack satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), a three-stage missile carrying a miniature homing vehicle designed to make a direct hit against the target. The Vought missile was designed to be fired from an F-15 Eagle in a steep climb. After one successful test to demonstrate the Vought technology on Sept. 13, 1985, in which an aging U.S. satellite was the target, the U.S. ceased further development efforts and never procured or deployed the system. It took about 17 years for the debris from that one U.S. ASAT test to fall from orbit.

In the 1990s, the U.S. invested funds in research and development of a more advanced ASAT device, incorporating more updated sensor and guidance technology, but never tested it. The U.S. currently has no operational or deployed ASAT devices, although the Air Force retains several prototypes of earlier designs in storage.

U.S. Assessments and Concerns

U.S. intelligence services have been following Chinese space developments in recent years. The U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense went so far as to issue a report on July 19, 2005, that addressed China’s growing space capability. The report — The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005 — claimed that China was developing and intends to field ASAT systems. The report stated:

“China is working on, and plans to field, ASAT systems. Beijing has and will continue to enhance its satellite tracking and identification network — the first step in establishing a credible ASAT capability. China can currently destroy or disable satellites only by launching a ballistic missile or space-launch vehicle armed with a nuclear weapon. However, there are many risks associated with this method, and consequences from use of nuclear weapons.”

The 2005 U.S. report did not predict that the Chinese were developing, or could field, a working version of a kinetic kill device. But in a section of the report concerning what it labeled as China’s “Space and Counterspace” activities, the official U.S. document noted that Beijing has been building infrastructure for space-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and targeting capabilities. The report stated:

“Building a modern ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] architecture is likely one of the primary drivers behind Beijing’s space endeavors and a critical component of its overall C4ISR modernization efforts.”

One critic named Jeffrey Lewis, a research fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, was skeptical of the Pentagon’s assertions. At the time, Lewis told the Web site SPACE.com that “Although the 2005 edition does flatly state — as have previous reports — that China intends to field ASAT systems, the 2005 edition omits most of the evidence cited in previous reports, including discredited claims about the development of a parasite microsatellite and a ground-based direct ascent ASAT that was supposed to be fielded as early as this year.” Lewis added that, although the U.S. Department of Defense was asserting that China intends to deploy ASATs, “It’s pretty clear they don’t have any evidence to back that up.” Until now, of course. The Chinese have cleared up any confusion, and actually conducted a successful ASAT test complete with hard kill. So much for “discredited claims.”

Chinese Research and Development

While the U.S. assessment may not have included detailed or classified intelligence information, there is a large amount of Chinese research in the field of space control made public every year. Among the titles of significant Chinese publications are the Journal of Astronautics, Aerospace Control, and Modern Defense Technology. All of these learned journals have published original Chinese research in the past two years on kinetic kill vehicles — for example, an article entitled “Modeling and Simulation of Guidance and Control of Kinetic Kill Vehicle in Terminal Process of Interception” by Gao Da-Yuan et al. in Journal of Astronautics (Yuhang Xuebao) Vol. 26, No. 4 (2005), Pgs. 420-424. Perhaps someone should send a copy to the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

And according to unclassified U.S. Air Force information, the Chinese apparently conducted three previous intercept missions against the FY-1C satellite, on Oct. 26, 2005, and on April 20 and Nov. 30, 2006. These shots “missed” the target, but that does not mean that they were not experimental or technical successes. It may have been that the Chinese were testing other elements of their ASAT system, such as the launch vehicle, the guidance system, the closing and targeting subsystems, and the general command and control process. Finally, on the fourth shot on Jan. 11, 2007, the Chinese hit the satellite at which they were aiming.


The U.S. military is especially dependent on satellites for navigation, communications and missile guidance. The U.S. economy, and most other modern economies that rely on space-based communication pathways, could also be broadly damaged by disruptions of communications, weather, and other satellites.

China’s test of an ASAT weapon against its own satellite has increased the quantity of debris able to be tracked by more than 900 objects, or an immediate 10% increase in a figure that has otherwise accumulated in orbit over the past 50 years. This debris is a threat to essentially every spacecraft that orbits below about 1,243 miles.

China’s FY-1C satellite, orbiting at an altitude of 534 miles, shattered, along with the ASAT device, into thousands of pieces large and small, some of which were dispersed into a wide range of orbits ranging in altitude from 2,361 miles on the high end down to about 124 miles at the lowest, according to Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris and a longtime expert in the field. “This is by far the worst satellite fragmentation in the history of the space age, in the past 50 years,” he stated.

As of mid-February, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) in Colorado Springs had cataloged 647 of the more than 900 items its sensors were tracking. On average, these kinds of objects must be at least 3.9 inches in diameter to be tracked from the ground, although smaller objects can be pinpointed using two radars located at the Haystack Observatory in Tyngsboro, Mass., operated by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.

NASA’s Mr. Johnson says that the debris models predict an eventual cloud of some 35,000 objects larger than 1 centimeter remaining in orbit. “Many of these debris will be in orbit for 100 years or more because the altitude of the breakup was so high,” he said. “Some will come down earlier, but the majority will be up there for a very long time.”

Space Control and Power Projection

Chinese spokespersons are fond of denying that China has, or can develop, imperial ambitions. The foundation of this argument is that China was an oppressed nation for almost two centuries, and its recent increase in economic and military power is simply a defensive reaction. China, goes the argument, is simply advancing from its past position of weakness, no matter what it does. Yet China, in its effort to demonstrate a capability that the U.S. and former USSR have not tested in over two decades, has fouled the nest of orbital space in a way that could just plain screw it up for everyone.

Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization involved with security issues, called the Chinese ASAT test a response to U.S. space policies. “The Chinese are telling the Pentagon that they don’t own space,” he said. “We can play this game, too,” is the Chinese message, “and we can play it dirtier than you.” Well, that is sure something of which to be proud.

Still, and contrary to the dismissive, if not cavalier, attitudes expressed in some quarters, China’s successful test of an ASAT weapon means that the Middle Kingdom has mastered critical space sensor, tracking, launch, guidance, and other technologies important for advanced military space operations. The implications range from the tactical and operational to the strategic and geostrategic. Based on its demonstrated technical ability, China is now in a position to use “space control” as a foreign and military policy weapon. This will greatly assist China in projecting its growing power, both regionally and globally.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
February 21, 2007