Our GPS satellites have become a national resource while providing the greatest free utility in the world and is intertwined throughout our global economy. An attack against this precious resource would be an attack against our way of life.
– GENERAL LANCE LORD, COMMANDER, AIR FORCE SPACE COMMAND
China has destroyed a satellite in orbit, reports DefenseTech. It’s the first known satellite-killing test in space in more than 20 years, the White House said on Thursday. Google News has the latest.
The Washington Post reports, the Chinese used a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile (probably a DF-21), to knock out their own aging Feng Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite (below), about 537 miles above the earth, by slamming into it on January 11th, according to National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
David Wright (left) of the Cambridge, Mass-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said the satellite pulverized by China could have broken into nearly 40,000 fragments from 1 cm to 10 cms or up to four inches, roughly half of which would stay in orbit for more than a decade.
UPDATE: Jonathan’s Space Report
The FY-1C was in an 843 x 862 km x 98.7 deg orbit; the debris cataloged so far ranges from 165 x 850 km to 850 x 3500 km, a wide range of heights indicating an energetic fragmentation with delta-Vs of -190 to +550 m/s.
Of course, we are missing the tail of dV significantly less than -190 since those objects would reenter immediately. The type of missile used has not been identified; the most likely candidate is probably the solid-fuel DF-21 missile. CNN quotes US sources as indicating that this is the fourth launch in the program following three previous failures.
This is the first known anti-satellite intercept since the USA’s Delta 180 flight in 1986.
The apparent test of Chinese anti-satellite technology raised concerns about a possible arms race in space and drew sharp protests from other space-faring nations.
Aviation Week first reported the test and said the Chinese Feng Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite, launched in 1999, was destroyed by an antisatellite system launched from or near China’s Xichang Space Center in Sichuan Province (below).
The satellite-destroying test is believed to be the first of its kind in two decades by any nation, and experts say it dramatically illustrates Chinese capabilities in space and their willingness to face the certainty of broad international criticism.
Johnson is chief of the NASA Orbital Debris Program (FAQ) and was interviewed on Science Friday (MP3 and WindowsMedia) by Ira Flatow. Johnson’s History of On-Orbit Satellite Fragmentations (pdf), reviews past events.
Whether this event will make the 500 mile orbit a mine field remains to be seen. It could be an unprecedented global disaster if weather satellites, so essential to the world’s population, are now threatened by debris.
The U.S. Space Surveillance Network (above) operates ground-based radar and optical sensors at 25 sites worldwide.
NASA’s J-Track 3-D is a free Java-based satellite tracker. It will appear in its own window and begin loading a database of over 900 satellites. Be sure to try the “Satellite” pull-down menu to choose which satellite you wish to view.
Polar orbiting weather satellites circle the Earth at a typical altitude of 850 km (530 miles) in a north to south (or vice versa) path, passing over the poles in their continuous flight. The NOAA satellites include NOAA 17 and NOAA 18 as primary spacecraft, NOAA 12, NOAA 14 in standby, and NOAA 15 and NOAA 16 as secondary spacecraft. Russia has the Meteor and RESURS series of satellites. China and India have polar orbiting satellites as well.
The Space Shuttle has an operational altitude of 185 to 1,000 km (100 to 520 nmi). It services the International Space Station, which orbits close to 352.8 km (190.5 miles), and the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits at 589 km (360 miles).
The Iridium satellite constellation is a system of 66 satellites orbit at a height of approximately 485 miles. Globalstar uses 40 “bent pipe” repeaters 879 miles above Earth, inclined 52 degrees, compared to the near-polar 86.4-degree orbits used by Iridium.
GPS satellites orbit at 20,200 kilometers (12,600 miles or 10,900 nautical miles), arranged so that at least six satellites are always within line of sight from almost anywhere on Earth.
Just what happened (and why) is still unclear.
In September 2004, the Air Force declared operational the Counter Communication System (CCS), a ground-based, deployable system. It is designed to disrupt satellite-based communications using temporary and reversible methods such as ground-based RF jammers and laser “dazzlers” using assets like the Starfire Optical Range, near Albuquerque.
Safeguarding Space Security is no simple task. Current budget items, according to CommsDesign, include the Experimental Satellite System (XSS), which would use a microsatellite to perform “experiments” near other satellites; the Spacecraft for Unmanned Modification of Orbits, which specifies use of a grappling hook to grab adversary satellites; the Kinetic Energy ASAT Weapon, the Near-Field Infrared Experiment, a satellite with one sensor payload that may get a secret, second kill-vehicle payload attached; and the Space-Based Interceptor Testbed.
High-power microwave weapons may be on the verge of a high-speed turn toward the practical, says Aviation Week. Craig Covault says the U.S. Air Force operates the 76th Space Control Sqdn, based at Peterson AFB, Colorado, where mobile teams can deploy worldwide to jam enemy satellite communications.
SpaceDev subsidiary, Starsys, in partnership with the University of Colorado Laboratory for Space Physics, will work on the Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle program, which is the kill vehicle component of the Ground Based Interceptor, the weapon element of the Ground-based mid-course Defense System program.
The United States has been testing the Lightweight Exo-Atmospheric Projectile (LEAP) which can hit and kill a target in space. Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) intercepts longer-range ballistic missiles at high altitudes. ANGELS would provide on-orbit monitoring of a space asset using nanosatellites.
A FAS Weapons in Space paper features Hui Zhang’s report on China’s ASAT capabilities. The Chinese development of ASAT weapons could constitute a potential threat to U.S. military forces. Chinese ASAT weapons could counter U.S. military dominance, say some analysts.
On October 15, 2003, at the Jiuquan Space Center near the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China, the first Chinese manned space flight was launched with Shenzhou 5. Their CZ-5 rocket booster is comparable to the European Ariane-5, Russian Proton-M, or U.S. Delta IV and Atlas V.
It takes about 20 minutes to fire a ballistic missile into space, and have its “kill vehicle” strike a satellite at hypersonic speed — over 15,000 miles per hour — in low-earth orbit. That’s far too quick for anything in the American arsenal to respond, in time. There’s “no possibility of shielding” a relatively-fragile satellite against such a strike. “And it is impractical [for a satellite] to carry enough fuel to maneuver away even if you had specific and timely warning of an attack,” Center for Defense Information analyst Theresea Hitchens notes.
It seems like everytime the Pacific Telecommunication Council meets in Hawaii, something goes dark.
According to WikiPedia, Anti-satellite weapons may also include beam weapons using plasma, EMP and lasers. Phillips Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, is a major center for directed energy research in the United States.
The Advanced Electro-Optical System at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex is equipped with lasers and deformable optics to remove the distorting effects of the atmosphere. In theory, ground- or space-based lasers could heat the surface of space debris, vaporizing its upper surface. This would cause the debris to expel gases, acting as a brake on the debris’ orbital motion until it falls to earth. Claude Phipps, president of a laser company, Photonic Associates is a leading champion of laser-driven cleanups.
China fired high-power lasers at U.S. spy satellites flying over its territory in September, 2006, reports Defense News.
“You can’t go to war and win without space,” said Gen. Lance Lord, the four-star general in charge of the Colorado-based Air Force Space Command. Air Force Space Command is tasked with both protecting US satellites from attack or disruption and maintaining an offensive capability against “enemy” space hardware.
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