About this time last year (11 Jan), China conducted the now infamous direct-ascent ASAT (Anti-Satellite) hit-to-kill test. We have written to some degree about it already – notably here and here. Both articles describe the notorious aspect of the test – the addition of significant amounts of debris to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). How much? This one act increased by 10% the amount of orbital debris that will continue to hazard satellites in LEO for up to a century (to include, by the way, future shuttle missions as well as the ISS). Illustrated below, we provide first the impact scenario on 11 Jan, 5 minutes post-attack impact and follow that with a more recent illustration:
By this past December (2007), the debris count, according to NASA’s Orbital Debris Count Office, had reached and surpassed 35,000 pieces 1 cm in size or larger (basically big enough to be tracked and in turn, be a hazard to on-orbit vehicles and spacewalkers). Underscoring the seriousness of the event, the Center for Space Standards & Innovation (CSSI)) has tagged this event as the largest debris generating event in history (these illustrations and the accompanying video were generated by CSSI). The view as of 5 December 2007:
So what impact, if any, was felt in 2007? One of the early and immediate impacts, or rather, attempts to avoid impacts as it were, according to UPI was a repositioning of the ISS to avoid debris in early February. Within the US government it caused a degree of consternation that (surprise!) there is a degree of vulnerability of our satellite constellation to interdiction and that we may be overly reliant on said constellation without appropriate fallback solutions. The degree of surprise and consternation was noted with a certain sense of wry satisfaction in some corners (we won’t say where) as it had been hammered on for some few years now in anlayses and exercises. The usual rejoinder was that since we (the US) had renounced our own nascent ASAT capabilities almost fifteen years ago, certainly no one else was going to develop those capabilities (or, as was more commonly the case, extreme hubris was such that many senior public and private sector leaders thought no one else could develop those capabilties for quite some time…). These attitudes persisted despite such real world events as several instances of intentional jamming or interefence with GPS or communications satellites and a 2006 instance of China illuminating a US reconnaissance satellite with a ground-based laser.
The ASAT test served notice that certain niceties and false assumptions that US space leadership had been operating under were just that – false assumptions. How so? When the test originally took place, there were some who thought it was a case of one part of the Chinese government not communicating with the other – surely a "responsible" space-faring nation wouldn’t have allowed such a test to take place knowing the importance unhindered access to space and in particular, low Earth orbit has to the global economy. Under this scenario the military "got out of the box" so to speak and conducted the hazardous experiment without the civilian government’s full understanding of the implications of the test. Not so.
Let’s step back for a minute and take another look at the test itself and what it entails and implies about the state of China’s program and what that in turn, could signal to the world in general and the US, in particular.
The test was a direct ascent, hit-to-kill intercept. That is in contrast to the generic Cold War-era Soviet ASAT scenario which was usually a two or three orbit intecept. The latter took longer but was easier from a command and control aspect for managing the intercept. Time was not the critical factor that it is in a direct ascent intercept. A direct ascent intercept requires precise tracking, coordination and control – knowing and tracking the target and working out the intercept geometry for the intercept, all based on advanced sensors, tracking and precise trajectory controls. Where have we seen that capabiltiy demonstrated before? Only by the US and Russia. The fact that this was a head on intercept means extraordinarily high closure speeds were generated. (To gain a sense of those speeds, head over to the Missile Defense Agency’s website and watch the tracking film of the GBI intercept for FTG-03a) The target for the ASAT was an out of commission weather satellite – a fairly high density object (IOW – not a designed test object). That was one of the contributing factors to the high debris quantity. If a low density target had been used, the debris field could have been substantially reduced, but other artificialities would have been introduced into the scenario.
Given the degree of sophistication to develop, model, test and simulate a direct ascent/head-on ASAT attack, the magnitude of the debris field had to have been understood by leadership – political and miltary, prior to the test. They had to have known and assessed the impact it would have to other nations using LEO and made their decision accordingly. And that is why the test is important – not just for the capability it demonstrated, but for the implied thought process that preceded and approved the shot. For in so doing, the Chinese were sending a message to the US that in a future crisis, as important as space might be to both nations, they recognized it was of greater importance to the US and were willing to execute a course of action that while it would degrade or deny some aspects of space access to themselves, would have a significantly greater, if not prevailing impact on the US and other nations.
Clearly a shooting war in space with the US will be costly to China – but they have evidently made the calculation and set the bar at some level that in a future crisis – whether it be over Taiwan or in some other matter that is critical to China, they would be willing to pull the trigger. Absent a US counter, short of prompt strike against launch preparations which itself has an escalatory nature, the US may be faced with few choices but escalation or backing down. Actions policymakers should be taking now include ensuring on-orbit redundancy for critical assets, rapid reconstitution of critical capabilities (e.g., ability to rapidly launch a "lesser featured" satellite to fill a critical gap for a shorter duration until replacement is available), and hardening of satellites to debris and attack. Boost phase intercept of ASAT-interceptors is another capabiltiy that may be available, at least in an emergency or limited defense option, within a couple of years.
Other fallout from the test comes in the form of Aviation Week & Space Technology following Time magazine’s meme of heaping accolades on those supported by (or leading) despotic regimes in 2007, by naming China’s Qian Xuesen as its 2007 Person of the Year. Citing the ASAT test as well as the Chang’e Lunar probe and earlier accomplishments of the Chinese space program (the Long March series of space launchers for example) of which he was head administrator for a number of years, AW&ST cites his influence for bringing China to its current position of influence and prestige among the space faring nations. We personally would have preferred the crew of the ISS and STS-120 as well as all those in support roles on the ground for this feat demonstrating the worth of man in space instead.
So what’s next for the Chinese space program? More manned flights to be sure including a moonshot by 2015-2020. Further development and refinement of their rocket program – commercial and military, definitely. And this curious item which appeared on a Chinese military blog last month:
Say "hello" to the ‘Shenlong’ or Divine Dragon and what may be China’s attempt at a hypersonic spaceplane. We’ll cover that in Part II later this week…