BOSTON -- The House and Senate Armed Services committees will get classified briefings Friday about the destruction of a Chinese weather satellite by a Chinese-launched ballistic missile, an incident that is being widely interpreted as the test of an anti-satellite weapon.
Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council's (NSC) chief spokesman, said in a statement supplied by an NSC press official that the Chinese used a ground-based, medium-range ballistic missile to knock out an aging Chinese weather satellite orbiting the Earth at an altitude of about 537 miles (865 kilometers). Johndroe described the incident as a kinetic strike.
"The United States believes China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area," Johndroe said. "We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese."
Jeffrey Lewis, executive director of Harvard's Managing the Atom Project was among the first to disclose the incident Jan. 17 in a blog he writes for the Web site armscontrolwonk.com.
Lewis said in a Jan. 17 telephone interview that an analysis of orbital data that is gathered by U.S. Air Force space surveillance systems and posted online at Space-Track.org and Heavens-Above.com indicated that the Chinese FY-1C weather satellite, which was launched in 1999, disappeared from view about Jan. 11. In an interview Jan. 18, Lewis said the satellite reappeared Jan. 12 in a different orbit and in multiple pieces. Lewis said the orbital tracking data strongly suggested the satellite was struck by a missile fired from the Chinese mainland.
"This is an enormous mess they [the Chinese] have created. There is no excuse for what is a reckless, stupid and self-defeating decision on their part," Lewis said.
"Space-Track is showing about 40 pieces of debris, which is probably just the tip of the iceberg," Lewis said. Space-Track.org is the U.S. Air Force Web site that provides public satellite tracking data.
There may be one piece of good to come of the Chinese action -- improved debris field modeling. "Our models of debris spread are quite speculative, so this event should help improve our models," Lewis said.
Phone calls to the press office at the Chinese Embassy in Washington were not returned by press time.
In his press briefing yesterday, White House spokesman Tony Snow indicated it was not yet clear exactly what China's intentions were but echoed Johndroe's comments: "we are concerned about [the incident] and we've made it known."
Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the Naval War College's department of national security decision making and one of the country's top experts on Chinese space issues, said she doubted there will be much long-term impact. "I think there will be a lot of very vocal rhetoric, but I don't think it will have a substantive impact. There are just too many reasons for both of us to work together on so many issues."
China was listed alongside Russia as "the primary states of concern regarding military space and counter-space programs" by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in written testimony submitted to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Jan. 11, the same day the incident occurred.
"Several countries continue to develop capabilities that have the potential to threaten U.S. space assets, and some have already deployed systems with inherent anti-satellite capabilities, such as satellite-tracking laser ranger-finding devices and nuclear-armed ballistic missiles," Maples said in his written testimony.
- U.S. Defense Report: China Working on Anti-Satellite Systems
- Pentagon Report: China's Space Warfare Tactics Aimed at U.S. Supremacy
- Special Report: Emerging China, Engaging China