China Destroys Satellite in Test


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

January 19, 2007

Flexing Muscle, China Destroys Satellite in Test

China successfully carried out its first test of an antisatellite weapon last 
week, signaling its resolve to play a major role in military space activities 
and bringing expressions of concern from Washington and other capitals, the Bush
administration said yesterday.

Only two nations ‹ the Soviet Union and the United States ‹ have previously 
destroyed spacecraft in antisatellite tests, most recently the United States in 
the mid-1980s.

Arms control experts called the test, in which the weapon destroyed an aging 
Chinese weather satellite, a troubling development that could foreshadow an 
antisatellite arms race. Alternatively, however, some experts speculated that it
could precede a diplomatic effort by China to prod the Bush administration into 
negotiations on a weapons ban.

³This is the first real escalation in the weaponization of space that we¹ve seen
in 20 years,² said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket 
launchings and space activity. ³It ends a long period of restraint.²

White House officials said the United States and other nations, which they did 
not identify, had ³expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese.² 
Despite its protest, the Bush administration has long resisted a global treaty 
banning such tests because it says it needs freedom of action in space.

Jianhua Li, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said that he had 
heard about the antisatellite story but that he had no statement or information.

At a time when China is modernizing its nuclear weapons, expanding the reach of 
its navy and sending astronauts into orbit for the first time, the test appears 
to mark a new sphere of technical and military competition. American officials 
complained yesterday that China had made no public or private announcements 
about its test, despite repeated requests by American officials for more 
openness about its actions.

The weather satellite hit by the weapon had circled the globe at an altitude of 
roughly 500 miles. In theory, the test means that China can now hit American spy
satellites, which orbit closer to Earth. The satellites presumably in range of 
the Chinese missile include most of the imagery satellites used for basic 
military reconnaissance, which are essentially the eyes of the American 
intelligence community for military movements, potential nuclear tests and even 
some counterterrorism, and commercial satellites.

Experts said the weather satellite¹s speeding remnants could pose a threat to 
other satellites for years or even decades.

In late August, President Bush authorized a new national space policy that 
ignored calls for a global prohibition on such tests. The policy said the United
States would ³preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space²
and ³dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing 
capabilities intended to do so.² It declared the United States would ³deny, if 
necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national 

The Chinese test ³could be a shot across the bow,² said Theresa Hitchens, 
director of the Center for Defense Information, a private group in Washington 
that tracks military programs. ³For several years, the Russians and Chinese have
been trying to push a treaty to ban space weapons. The concept of exhibiting a 
hard-power capability to bring somebody to the negotiating table is a classic 
cold war technique.²

Gary Samore, the director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said 
in an interview: ³I think it makes perfect sense for the Chinese to do this both
for deterrence and to hedge their bets. It puts pressure on the U.S. to 
negotiate agreements not to weaponize space.²

Ms. Hitchens and other critics have accused the administration of conducting 
secret research on advanced antisatellite weapons using lasers, which are 
considered a far speedier and more powerful way of destroying satellites than 
the weapons of two decades ago.

The White House statement, issued by the National Security Council, said China¹s
³development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of 
cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area.²

An administration official who had reviewed the intelligence about China¹s test 
said the launching was detected by the United States in the early evening of 
Jan. 11, which would have been early morning on Jan. 12 in China. American 
satellites tracked the launching of the medium-range ballistic missile, and 
later space radars saw the debris.

The antisatellite test was first reported late Wednesday on the Web site of 
Aviation Week and Space Technology, an industry magazine. It said intelligence 
agencies had yet to ³complete confirmation of the test.²

The test, the magazine said, appeared to employ a ground-based interceptor that 
used the sheer force of impact rather than an exploding warhead to shatter the 

Dr. McDowell of Harvard said the satellite was known as Feng Yun, or ³wind and 
cloud.² Launched in 1999, it was the third in a series. He said that it was a 
cube measuring 4.6 feet on each side, and that its solar panels extended about 
28 feet. He added that it was due for retirement but that it still appeared to 
be electronically alive, making it an ideal target.

³If it stops working,² he said, ³you know you have a successful hit.²

David C. Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a 
private group in Cambridge, Mass., said he calculated that the Chinese satellite
had shattered into 800 fragments four inches wide or larger, and millions of 
smaller pieces.

The Soviet Union conducted roughly a dozen antisatellite tests from 1968 to 
1982, Dr. McDowell said, adding that the Reagan administration carried out its 
experiments in 1985 and 1986.

The Bush administration has conducted research that critics say could produce a 
powerful ground-based laser weapon that would be used against enemy satellites.

The largely secret project, parts of which were made public through Air Force 
budget documents submitted to Congress last year, appears to be part of a 
wide-ranging administration effort to develop space weapons, both defensive and 

The administration¹s laser research is far more ambitious than a previous effort
by the Clinton administration to develop an antisatellite laser, though the 
administration denies that it is an attempt to build a laser weapon.

The current research takes advantage of an optical technique that uses sensors, 
computers and flexible mirrors to counteract the atmospheric turbulence that 
seems to make stars twinkle. The weapon would essentially reverse that process, 
shooting focused beams of light upward with great clarity and force.

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a group that studies 
national security, called the Chinese test very un-Chinese.

³There¹s nothing subtle about this,² he said. ³They¹ve created a huge debris 
cloud that will last a quarter century or more. It¹s at a higher elevation than 
the test we did in 1985, and for that one the last trackable debris took 17 
years to clear out.²

Mr. Krepon added that the administration had long argued that the world needed 
no space-weapons treaty because no such arms existed and because the last tests 
were two decades ago. ³It seems,² he said, ³that argument is no longer 

Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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