All posts in “ASAT”

Chinese Announce Successful Missile Intercept Test

From China today comes news today of a successful missile intercept test:

“BEIJING (AP) — China announced that its military intercepted a missile in mid-flight Monday in a test of new technology that comes amid heightened tensions over Taiwan and increased willingness by the Asian giant to show off its advanced military capabilities. The official Xinhua News Agency reported late Monday that ”ground-based midcourse missile interception technology” was tested within Chinese territory.  ”The test has achieved the expected objective,” the three-sentence report said. ”The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country.” Monday’s report follows repeated complaints in recent days by Beijing over the sale by the U.S. of weaponry to Taiwan, including PAC-3 air defense missiles. These sales are driven by threats from China to use force to bring the island under its control, backed up by an estimated 1,300 Chinese ballistic missiles positioned along the Taiwan Strait.”

Of course China doesn’t do anything without some express purpose, and to that end we would note that today is the 3rd anniversary of the infamous ASAT test, conducted on 11 January 2007.  Infamous, because of the on-orbit debris field it generated and near universal condemnation it engendered.  So find ourselves three years later and coincident with that date and the announcement by the US of plans to go ahead with the sale of PAC-3 batteries to Taiwan as a (small) partial counter to the hundreds of SRBMs China has deployed.

Interesting times, eh?

The Problem(s) With Debris – 2009 Edition

A little over two years ago, China conducted the now notorious direct ascent ASAT shot on the Fengyun-1 satellite which was in a polar orbit.  We’ve commented extensively at the time and a year hence on the issues raised by this shot.  So where do we stand just past the second anniversary?  Well, like rabbits, the debris field is growing:

leo-asat15The NASA report said that two years after China used a ground-based missile to destroy the retired Chinese Fengyun-1C weather satellite in an 800-kilometer orbit, SSN is tracking nearly 2,800 pieces of debris measuring at least 5 centimeters in diameter. “The estimated population of debris larger than 1 centimeter is greater than 150,000,” NASA said. “The Fengyun-1C debris cloud easily constitutes the largest collection of fragments in Earth orbit.” (

What brought our attention to this latest state of affairs was a report of another satellite potentially in trouble – this time a Soviet-era plasma-a__1test platform based on a RORSAT (radar ocean-reconnaissance satellite), powered by a prototype reactor (Topaz) that used pressurized sodium-potassium as a coolant for the reactor.  The reactor was necessary to generate the high-power required by the satellite for the ocean-surveillance mission.  Placed in a polar orbit between 774 and 803 km, the Plasma-A satellite acted as a test bed not only for the functionality of the Topaz-reactor, but taking advantage of the power generated by the reactor, also tested electrostatic maneuvering engines composed of six SPT-70 Stationary Plasma Thrusters, ion orientation and stabilization engines, solar sensors, magnetic momentum compensators and multi-channel wave devices (one of the ancillary missions was to map out the Earth’s magnetosphere for a magnetic-based navigation system). (Gunter’s space page).  Specifically what appears to have happened was what NASA is calling a “fragmentation event” that occurred 4 July 2008 while the satellite was in at 800 km altitude, releasing up to 30 small pieces of debris, conjectured to be metal spheres extruded from a conjectured leak in the reactor’s coolant system.  Of note – the satellite is slated to eventually re-enter the atmosphere sometime around mid-century and is supposed to burn up well high in the upper atmosphere.  Unlike the RORSATs which separated into two parts upon termination of mission, one being the reactor body which was moved to a higher orbit, Kosmos-1818/Plasma-A remained a single object.

A couple of theories are making the round as to what caused the event — one being that the plumbing for the metal coolant became thermal stressed from its prolonged exposure on-orbit,weakened and cracked releasing the liquid metal which promptly froze.  Another, with some traction, is that the release was the result of a collision with debris.  Where the debris came from is another issue — in its present orbit there is debris from older RORSATs that have leaked or otherwise left debris behind.  In fact, the present orbit transits some of the highest debris-laden areas – including the growing debris field from the Chinese ASAT, and serves to highlight – again, the growing issue of on-orbit debris.

Orbital debris – the gift that keeps on giving…

The Problem With Debris: The ASAT Test One Year Later

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…

Tuesday’s Roll-up of Missile News and Notes

Missile and other news and notes from around the ‘sphere:

MANPADs vs Helos

Lots of concern/interest in countering the MANPAD (MAN Portable Air Defense) missiles in the wake of increased helo loses these past couple of weeks. While the CH-46 loss that has gained so much coverage appears to have been mechanical in nature (Update: DoD confirmed on 14 Feb that the CH-46 was in fact, shot down and did not crash due to mechanical failure), open press reporting speculates others have succumbed to a variety of weapons up to and including MANPADs. Most likely what we are seeing are newer missile variants starting to appear in theater. Small arms and RPG fire, while potentially lethal in certain restricted confines, are less likely to be the source in a more open scenario, and doubly so when considering armored attack helos like the Apache.

Older missiles used a proximity fuze for detonation in the vicinity of the target aircraft, a reflection of the relatively lower degree of sophistication and discrimination capabilities (clutter rejection, counter-counter measures, etc.) OTOH, newer missiles use discrimination features that not only are contact fuzed, but seek to impart the most damage in the most vulnerable areas – to the point they can discern between single/multi-engine aircraft and helos and target the vulnerable areas accordingly. The warheads themselves are increasingly complex and lethal, such as sending a dense stream of high-speed projectiles into the target and having secondary fuzing to detonate any fuel cloud resulting from the initial hit.

Yeah, pretty nasty stuff, and all the more reason to hold helo folks who are working/flying down in the weeds in greater esteem.

What would be the insurgent’s CONOPS in stepping up the campaign against helos? Couple of points – recall the morale boost it gave the Afghans to have something they could effectively employ against the Soviet’s Hind helos (aka “Devil’s Chariot”). It forced the Soviets to change their operating procedures and flight heights. A similar effect in the ongoing battle for Baghdad and other urban areas would force (in the insurgent’s eyes) the US to operate its helos in a more circumspective manner and thereby give back the urban roof top environs to the insurgents. Of course that is a pretty simplistic CONOPS and ignores other variables such as persistent ISR from UAVs operating above MANPAD ceilings, deployment of more effective countermeasures and changes in tactics and employment. Bottom-line – while we haven’t seen the last of these losses, my money is still on our helos and their crews prevailing.

Oh, and for reference, the defenses being currently explored for civilian airliner defense are only up to base-Stinger level – technology that is 20+years old…

North Korean Nuclear Agreement?

The United States and four other nations reached a tentative agreement to provide North Korea with roughly $400 million in fuel oil and aid, in return for the North’s starting to disable its nuclear facilities and allowing nuclear inspectors back into the country, according to American officials who have reviewed the proposed text. While the accord sets a 60-day deadline for North Korea to accomplish those first steps toward disarmament, it leaves until an undefined moment in the future — and to another negotiation — the actual removal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the fuel that it has manufactured to produce them. Bush administration officials said they believed that the other nations participating in the talks … would consent to the tentative agreement as soon as Tuesday. … In essence, if the North agrees to the deal, a country that only four months ago conducted its first nuclear test will have traded away its ability to produce new nuclear fuel in return for immediate energy and other aid. It would still hold on to, for now, an arsenal that American intelligence officials believe contains more than a half-dozen nuclear weapons or the fuel that is their essential ingredient. The accord also leaves unaddressed the fate of a second and still-unacknowledged nuclear weapons program that the United States accused North Korea of buying from the Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan in the late 1990s … Negotiations had appeared near collapse on Sunday over North Korea’s demands for huge shipments of fuel oil and electricity. … (source: New York Times, February 13, 2007)

No More Chinese ASAT Tests?

In the wake of the firestorm of protest over last month’s test comes this item:

China’s National Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan says there won’t be a repeat of the Jan. 11 anti-satellite weapon test that scattered more than 900 trackable pieces of debris across the most heavily used satellite orbits in space. (ed: that number continues to grow – some now say over 1140 pieces) Fukushiro Nukaga, the former Japanese minister of state for defense, told reporters in Tokyo that during a meeting in Beijing Cao also repeated past Chinese denials that the test was a hostile act. … (source: Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, February 13, 2007) (ed: Also have to wonder how much internal, um, recalibration has been applied to the armed forces in what appears to have been a test carried out without fully informing senior civilian leadership…)

Americans Demand Military Response After Chinese Shoot Down DirecTV Satellite

WASHINGTON, DC—A citizens’ group presented a petition signed by nearly 75 million Americans to key members of Congress Monday, demanding the United States take immediate military action against China after the Communist nation shot down a DirecTV satellite last week. “This is a blatant attack on the American way of life,” said the group’s founder Abe Saloom. “Some of us lost a DirecTV signal that day, but all of us lost the freedom to feel secure in our DirecTV connections for the future.” The statement urged the American military to move swiftly, asserting that many Americans do not know “how they would go on” without the NFL Sunday Ticket package.

(ed: …seriously, you don’t think this would happen? The demand for military response that is… – SJS)

Wednesday Roll-up of Missile News

Continuing the themes from yesterday’s post:

a. India plans aerospace military command to oversee space-based assets: In yet more fallout from China’s ASAT test comes the announcement from India that they intend to “create an aerospace command to control and protect satellites and spacecraft orbiting the Earth.” Air Chief Marshal Shashi Tyagi said India was an aerospace power with “transoceanic reach” and it was important for it to be able to exploit outer space. “As the reach of the Indian Air Force is expanding it has become extremely important that we exploit space, and for it you need space assets.” Tyagi’s comments follow a Chinese anti-satellite weapons test on Jan. 11 in which it used a missile to shoot down an old weather satellite. Additionally comes word of India working on development of missile shield for satellites. (from IRNA, New Delhi, Jan 23) Fearing that its satellites could be under threat from missiles, India is working on development of a shield for which it is in talks with Russia and other countries having such technology. … China has recently tested one such missile, but the official underlined that India’s desire to develop the shield was not prompted by that development. … He said India has been talking to “close friend” Russia and other countries having such technology “for our interest.” Besides Russia and China, the technology is available only to the US.

b. Russia Condemns European-based Missile Defense Plans: Russia continues to bang the drum over its extreme displeasure at the prospect of certain elements of the ground-based ballistic missile defense system being installed in Europe, especially in the area formerly known as Eastern Europe and part of the “Near Beyond” about which the Russians have historically been concerned. At issue is location of a ground-based radar site and interceptor field that would provide intercept coverage of US- and European-bound ICBM’s launched from the Middle East (presumably Iran). The current system lacks that capability with the preponderance of its fixed-base radars located in/around the Pacific and interceptors based in Alaska. This current, limited capability is geared against a threat originating from North Korea. Location of a radar site in the Czech Republic and a missile field in Poland by 2012 would go a substantial distance to mitigating the emerging threat from South West Asia. The system continues to grow and evolve – but per force, will always be several steps in capability and numbers behind the kind of offensive nuclear strike capability present in the Russian nuclear inventory, as well as the growing inventory and capability of China. Therefore arguments by Russian defense and foreign ministry officials that this represents an offensive threat or ratcheting up of the arms race are specious at best. The real issue is the view, perceived or real, of loss of influence in areas where once they held sway. Estonia’s recent law to remove Soviet-era war memorials (viewed more as emblematic of Soviet occupation than liberation), for example, invoked similar sharp responses, near hysteric rhetoric from Russian officials and the Russian parliament.

c. Shack – Successful THAAD test:, January 27, 2007. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency shot down a dummy target missile over the southern Pacific Ocean during a test of the U.S. missile defense shield early Saturday … First, a dummy ballistic missile was fired from a U.S. mobile launch platform in the Pacific Ocean in a simulated attack. Moments later, an interceptor missile was fired from the agency’s missile range facility on Hawaii’s Kauai Island and struck the dummy warhead over the Pacific Ocean, military footage showed. The mobile, ground-based system is designed to protect the United States from short to intermediate-range high altitude ballistic missile attacks in the North American region, agency spokeswoman Pam Rogers said. The system “intercepts missiles that are shorter range and at the end of their flight trajectory. It is part of the ballistic missile defense system, a layered system that is designed to intercept all types of missiles in all phases of flights,” Rogers said. This particular short to intermediate-range interceptor system has been tested four times a year since 2005. “This was our first test since we moved equipment in October from the White Sands missile range in New Mexico … everything went exceedingly well,” Rogers said. (ed: Continued strong comeback for the once sorely troubled THAAD program following a thorough restructuring).

d. Central Command Nominee Cites Naval, Missile Defense (Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, January 31, 2007): U.S. Navy Adm. William Fallon, head of Pacific Command, would emphasize greater missile defense, as well as naval and air superiority in the Persian Gulf and Middle East if he becomes head of Central Command, according to sentiments expressed at his Jan. 30 nomination hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Fallon told senators there was no doubt that North Korea and Iran were exchanging ballistic missile technology and that Iran appears to be shaping its military to deny U.S. aircraft carriers, precision strike and submarine capabilities in the Gulf, or at least to keep them at a distance. The country also is attempting to boost its power through asymmetric means, such as supporting international terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons, he further said in prepared answers to advance congressional questions. … Fallon, who would be the first admiral to lead CENTCOM, said he figured his nomination stemmed in part from an effort to manage the Middle East “neighborhood” around Iran while Iraq operations will be largely left to Army Gen. David Petraeus.

Tuesday Roll-up of Missile Issues

Items of note from around the world today:

1. China’s ASAT test:

  • China admits anti-satellite test: January 24, 2007. BEIJING: China has broken its silence and admitted that it held an anti-satellite test two weeks ago, confirming earlier reports from Washington. But a Foreign Ministry spokesman said China opposed any arms race in space and he knew of no plans for a second test. “China has always advocated the peaceful use of space, opposes the weaponisation of space and an arms race in space,” Liu Jianchao said yesterday. “China has never participated and will never participate in any arms race in outer space.” Mr. Liu told a news conference in Beijing that the Government had told the US of the test. “This test was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country,” he said. China has repeatedly refused to say publicly whether it knocked one of its own ageing satellites out of the skies with a missile on January 11, in what US officials criticised as a provocative escalation of military competition. Australia joined the US, Canada, Britain and Japan in expressing concern about the test. Asked about the danger posed by satellite fragments, Mr. Liu said only: “This is a highly technical question.” (ed. note: Guess this means the Russian Foreign Ministry can come out of the closet now and admit that, well, yes, the Chinese really did conduct an ASAT exercise…)
  • US OFFICIALS CITE CONCERNS ABOUT CHINA TEST DEBRIS, Reuters, January 22, 2007. Trash from China’s satellite-killing missile test has spread widely in space, creating a debris cloud that could jeopardize spy satellites and commercial imagery satellites in low orbits around Earth, U.S. officials said on Monday. Even the manned International Space Station is vulnerable to being hit by some of the thousands of pieces of trash created when China slammed a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile into an aging Chinese weather satellite about 537 miles (865 km) above Earth on Jan. 11, the officials said. … It could take decades for debris from the Chinese weather satellite to fall out of orbit. … No current international treaties or agreements prohibit anti-satellite tests … However, a 1967 global Outer Space Treaty does require notification of maneuvers in space, and holds countries liable for their actions, which means commercial operators could sue China for damages if their satellite was hit by debris. …
  • Other discussions re. China’s ASAT include a very cogent analysis of the test itself over at The Arms Control Otaku. His analysis includes the following salient points:

  • The satellite’s flight path was predictable;
  • It passed very close to the launch site;
  • The target was emitting a trackable signal and
  • Modifications were made to the satellite’s flight path to line it up with
    the kill vehicle launcher

Establishing controls in a test such as this is not a unique behavior. Early in a development program one always seeks to reduce variables and gradually introduce them later in the program as one gains confidence. The controls described above are not surprising and as the source writer points out, are indicative of an earlier generation of ASAT which implies fairly limited capabilities. Indeed, one for the problems with fixed location, ground-based interceptors is their limited FoV for intercept – a shortcoming that was mitigated when the US developed its airborne ASAT launched from an F-15. (ed. note: The Navy did investigate the feasibility of using the F-14 in a similar role with the Chance/Vought interceptor as it was particularly concerned with Soviet RORSATS and the IO, but chose to forego the effort as funding was being sucked into the black-hole that was the A-12 program).

The use of an emitter on the target is also not surprising – many AAW missilexes’ have had the drone squawking IFF (And how many RIOs and E-2 moles have sneaked a peak at the IFF paint to ensure they were tracking the right target? You know who you are…). What is problematic (for the US) is the guidance package on the booster to get the ASAT in the basket for an intercept. That accuracy appears to have been upped, which one presumes is an outgrowth of similar capability boosts for the more “generic” MRBM/IRBM packages out there.

2. Iranian Missile Exercises – OP Away, the tests have begun: (AP)TEHRAN, Iran – Iran conducted missile tests yesterday as its leadership stepped up warnings of a possible military confrontation with the United States. Yesterday, the Iranian military began five days of maneuvers near the northern city of Garmsar, about 60 miles southeast of Tehran, state television reported. The military tested its Zalzal-1 and Fajr-5 missiles, the report said.

  • Russia pitches in to “help” in their usual manner: Russia Fulfills Iran Missile Deal— TEHRAN (Fars News Agency) – Russia fulfilled a contract to sell air defense missiles to Iran, the head of the country’s state-run weapons exporter said on Tuesday. Russia fulfilled its contract obligations and “completed in full the delivery of Tor M-1 missiles to Iran,” ITAR-Tass quoted Rosoboronexport chief Sergei Chemezov as saying in Bangalore, India, where he was on a visit along with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Defense Ministry officials previously said Moscow would supply 29 of the sophisticated missile systems to Iran under a $700 million contract signed in December 2005, according to Russian media reports. Ivanov said last week that at least some of the missiles had been sent, the first high-level confirmation that their delivery took place despite US complaints.

China’s ASAT – The Problem With Debris

Lots of press these past few days over China’s ASAT test/demonstration vs. a defunct FY-1C weather satellite. Some may ask why the big deal — space after all, is not the province of but a few privileged nations and the target satellite was theirs, so why the concern? In a word, debris. The rather violent impact (and we are assuming a hit to kill intercept) generated thousands of debris particles of varying size. Where this is a problem lies in the orbit of the FY-1C. As a weather satellite it was in a polar orbit which in turn, exposes a huge number of satellites (including the ISS and if on orbit, the shuttle) to running a barrier of debris in their orbits. The illustration below(from the ArmsControlWonk blog which first broke the news) provides insight into this issue:
The launch path is the heavier purple path closer to the Earth, the intercept point is pretty clear and the threaded looking paths are the initial plots of debris. To give a better feel for what this constitutes, consider the infamous USAF “Needles” experiment or Project West Ford.

At the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s, all international communications were either sent through undersea cables or bounced off of the natural ionosphere. The United States military was concerned that the Soviets (or others) might cut those cables, forcing the unpredictable ionosphere to be the only means of communication with overseas forces. The Space Age had just begun, and the communications satellites we rely on today existed only in the sketches of futurists. Nevertheless, the US Military looked to space to help solve their communications weakness. Their solution was to create an artificial ionosphere. In May 1963, the US Air Force launched 480 million tiny copper needles that briefly created a ring encircling the entire globe. They called it Project West Ford. The engineers behind the project hoped that it would serve as a prototype for two more permanent rings that would forever guarantee their ability to communicate across the globe.

The project itself was a virtually unqualified success. Though the first launch ended in failure, the second launch went without a hitch on May 10th, 1963. Inside the West Ford spacecraft, the needles were packed densely together in blocks made of a naphthalene gel that would rapidly evaporate in space. This entire package of needles weighed only 20 kg. After being released, the hundreds of millions of copper needles gradually spread throughout their entire orbit over a period of two months. The final donut-shaped cloud was 15 km wide and 30 km thick and encircled the globe at an altitude of 3700 km:

The West Ford copper needles were each 1.8 cm long and 0.0018 cm in diameter and weighed only 40 micrograms. They were designed to be exactly half of the wavelength of 8000 MHz microwaves. This length would create strong reflections when the microwaves struck the copper needles, in effect making them tiny dipole antennae each repeating in all directions the exact same signal they received. Most of the West Ford dipoles re-entered Earth’s atmosphere sometime around 1970, according to theoretical and observational evidence. The needles slowly drifted down to the Earth’s surface, unscathed by re-entry because of their size (unlike the current mess left on orbit by China).

This is in studied contrast to the intercepts conducted by the US using either SM-3s or GBIs as part of the development of the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS). Those intercepts were against ballistic targets and the debris carried back in to the atmosphere in short order. Even when the US first demonstrated the ASAT concept in the late 50’s/early 60’s (Bold Orion, which was tested by the Air Force starting in October 1959, launched rockets from a B-47 bomber while in the two Hi-Ho tests in 1962, the Navy launched rockets from an F4D and F4J fighter) the intercepts were near hit and satellites not destroyed. If the intention was proof of concept, the Chinese ASAT could relatively easily have been flown to a near hit position and verified test criteria without target destruction and the resultant debris.

This was a dangerous, reckless and irresponsible action on the part of China and well deserving of the condemnation it is receiving.

P.S. General Peng has his own web page. On it, he links to a post by a self-described PLA soldier who describes the test as a slap in America’s face to get the US back to the negotiating table on a space demilitarization treaty. Some text with translation:


Expensive new U.S. spy satellite not working: sources
Thu Jan 11, 2007 4:39pm ET

By Andrea Shalal-Esa – Exclusive

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. officials are unable to communicate with an expensive experimental U.S. spy satellite launched last year by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), a defense official and another source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Thursday.