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Jan 19, 2007

Militarization of Space Looming

Posted by in categories: military, space

On CNN:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — China last week successfully used a missile to destroy an orbiting satellite, U.S. government officials told CNN on Thursday, in a test that could undermine relations with the West and pose a threat to satellites important to the U.S. military.

According to a spokesman for the National Security Council, the ground-based, medium-range ballistic missile knocked an old Chinese weather satellite from its orbit about 537 miles above Earth. The missile carried a “kill vehicle” and destroyed the satellite by ramming it.

The test took place on January 11. (Watch why the U.S. has protested the missile strike Video)

Aviation Week and Space Technology first reported the test: “Details emerging from space sources indicate that the Chinese Feng Yun 1C (FY-1C) polar orbit weather satellite launched in 1999 was attacked by an asat (anti-satellite) system launched from or near the Xichang Space Center.”

A U.S. official, who would not agree to be identified, said the event was the first successful test of the missile after three failures.

The official said that U.S. “space tracking sensors” confirmed that the satellite is no longer in orbit and that the collision produced “hundreds of pieces of debris,” that also are being tracked.

The United States logged a formal diplomatic protest.

“We are aware of it and we are concerned, and we made it known,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Several U.S. allies, including Canada and Australia, have also registered protests, and the Japanese government said it was worrisome.

China’s leaders are merely acting in the country’s best interests. In any major conflict, the ability to knock satellites out of the sky could be invaluable. That is why the US is making such a fuss about this. The leaders of China are only human — and humans have the tendency to engage in arms races. What can be done to prevent the militarization of space? If you have ideas, give them in the comments.

Update: here’s another article from the BBC.

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  • […] Reading today’s post over at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology reminded me of this image. The topic at hand was the mechanization of warfare, and the worrisome development of an auto-turret that is accurate at up to half a mile. The image is of Metal Gear D, from the video game series of the same name (minus the D). If human civilization continues as it has, then there are a lot of machines like this in our future. Over at the Lifeboat Foundation blog, I have a few words to say on the militarization of space. […]

  • Tom McCabe on January 19, 2007 2:55 pm

    There is already a treaty, the Outer Space treaty (which all spacefaring nations have signed), that specifies (from Wikipedia) “limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications (Art.IV). However, the Treaty does not expressly prohibit the placement or use of weapons in orbit, so long as they are for peaceful purposes.”

    Weapons for peaceful purposes, there’s a new one.

  • Michael Handy on January 20, 2007 8:36 pm

    It was my understanding that part of the reason that protests were made over this was that the test added to the debris problem in earth orbit. Stuff travels with extreme speed in space, and it takes little more than a dust particle to make a satellite go offline.

    The amount of debris, lost tools from astronauts, and abandoned satellites is already worrisome and has the potential to be catastrophic if china widens its testing program to include more important and crowded orbits like GEO.

    I’m not saying it’s the only reason of course, all western democratic nations that have major dealings with china want to limit its military capabilities, but the thought of these tests taking out important systems like GPS or commsats accidentaly may have more importance

  • chip on January 21, 2007 9:08 pm

    “China’s leaders are merely acting in the country’s best interests. In any major conflict, the ability to knock satellites out of the sky could be invaluable.”

    I think you’re confusing the perceived interests of the Chinese Communist Party with the interests of the Chinese people. There are no significant foreign threats to China’s territory and its people that warrant the missile test.

    According to your logic, North Korea is merely acting in its interests when it starves millions of people to funnel resources to the development of nukes.

    It’s not self-interest. It’s reckless and aggressive.

  • Brian Wang on January 22, 2007 2:20 pm

    Study your history of the Opium wars just over one hundred years ago.

    China was bullied into trade and political concessions like giving up Hong Kong.

    China is doing enough to deter such an action.

  • Brian Wang on January 22, 2007 4:20 pm

    N Korea is acting in the interest of the ruling political and military elite. It costs them less for a nuclear program and blackmailing for food and benefits and to simultaneously deter military actions against the current rulers than it would cost to fix their problems.
    N Korea is a multi-billion dollar per year shakedown. It also defers the eventual hundreds of billions and maybe trillions to rehabilitate and integrate N Korea into S Korea. For S korea it is pay now and pay later. Sometimes by paying now it will reduce payments later.

    btw: I think the militarization of space and competition for space is inevitable. I think it is a delusional view of human behavior and history to think that it will not happen.

    The plan for lifeboat and others should be how to keep the competition economic and technological and not the shooting/killing kind. This should be doable because any competition where nations have their act together economically and technological, it should be to their advantage to peacefully get their cut. Only for losers does it make sense to try and fight for it. Small scale example, a smart capable person can make millions or billions running a legal business or being a legal financial pro or doctor etc… Someone who cannot make good legal money doing ends up resorting to illegally robbing a bank or convenience store.

    If you are capable, you can stay inside the rules and win.

  • J Routledge on February 4, 2007 6:21 pm

    Personally I’m curious as to how much the ASAT development programme cost the Chinese. I suspect a lot less than it did the US. Maybe certian interests are concerned about losing out potential customers? Or explaining cost over runs?

    While the impact did create a debris field, you have to ask if the few hundred extra pieces significantly add to the 10,000 odd fragments that are regularly tracked up there already? It’s also questionable as to how long they’ll stay up there, since the intact satellite was already in a low orbit, and subject to atmospheric drag.

    And maybe the White House and Pentagon are getting confused about the term ‘American Space Command’. It refers to command of American space assents, not to some staked out territory in space that is America’s to command. They’ve had a near monopoly for 40 years now, but difficult as it is, it might be time they finally have to learn to share.

  • Adam on October 1, 2010 6:56 pm

    Well if it turns some “waste on war” money into “explore space and develop space tech” money, it can’t be *all* bad.