One strange effect of the seven Oscar wins yesterday for Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity is that many more people will be conversant about something that was mostly the kind of thing specialists talked about—just how damaging space debris from anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons can be. In Gravity, astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney struggle for their lives after debris from a satellite destroyed on-orbit by Russia threatens the space shuttle and space station. Read More
November 20th, 2013
Last spring the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) produced a report that included a lengthy section on the future of Chinese space science and technology. A translation with commentary is now available on the UCS website.
November 8th, 2013
Last week NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told an audience at Gettysburg College the U.S. space agency is resuming cooperation with China on space geodesy. Geodesy is the science of measurement of the size, shape, rotation, and gravitational field of the Earth and the study of geodesy incorporates a variety of space-based measurements. NASA and China have a cooperative agreement on space geodesy first signed in 1997 and renewed in 2010. Activities under that agreement were suspended after Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) attached language to a continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government in April 2011. The language forbids NASA “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China.” Read More
August 5th, 2013
Next year China will open a new space port on a tropical island in the South China Sea. In addition to supporting a new generation of wider-bodied space launch vehicles that will expand China’s capability to carry larger and heavier spacecraft into Earth orbit and beyond, the opening of the new launch facility on Hainan Island marks a noteworthy shift in the culture of the Chinese space community. Read More
June 20th, 2013
After traveling the U.S. equivalent of the distance between Philadelphia and Orlando in just under six hours on China’s high speed rail network, I arrived at the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha for a conference on space and cyber security. The university hosts some of China’s most advanced technology, including the world’s fastest supercomputer. The presentations and discussions I attended made it clear that despite all of the talk about the supposed rise of China and the imagined decline of the United States, Chinese security analysts and military officials remain concerned about a scientific and technological arms race they can not win. Read More
April 1st, 2013
Chinese Astronaut Yang Liwei aboard his Shenzhou V spacecraft during China’s first human space flight in October 2003. Image captured from a Chinese Central Television (CCTV) broadcast.
In a March 28 essay in The Diplomat, Scott Pace, a leading U.S. space policy expert, argues the United States should take proactive steps “to shape the international environment for the space activities that our economy and security depend on.” One important step he suggests is to focus on Asia.
His approach appears in part to be aimed at countering Chinese influence:
“If China is able to offer pragmatic opportunities for space cooperation on its own space station or as part of efforts to send humans to the Moon, other countries will likely see it attractive to forge closer relationships with China. A shift in international space influence away from the United States and toward China would have the potential to impact a wide range of U.S. national security and foreign policy interests in space.”
As a result, he recommends the U.S. strengthen ties with allies in the region:
“A primary strategic task for the United States should be to develop and implement a national security space strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, to build on existing alliance relationship such as with Japan, Australia, and South Korea to include dual-use space technologies.”
A “pivot” in U.S. space policy aimed at countering Chinese influence would be consistent with the Obama administration’s strategic shift of U.S. economic and defense priorities toward Asia. But it also risks extending regional tensions exacerbated by the “unnecessary and counterproductive” aspects of Obama’s pivot to Asia into a vitally important global commons.
Instead of isolating China in space with the aid of a reluctant collection of Asian partners who all wish to maintain constructive relations with the world’s second largest economy, U.S. interests might be better served by an inclusive national space strategy that embraces cooperation with China. Other U.S. space policy experts note that many U.S. partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and Canada, are already urging the United States to pursue cooperation and drop its opposition to Chinese to participation in the International Space Station (ISS). They argue a U.S. invitation to China is a low-risk, cost-effective means for the United States “to retain its leadership position in the current HSF [Human Space Flight] program” and establish itself as the leading partner in a follow-on program after the ISS is retired.
“A partnership with China could be developed along the same lines as was done with integrating the Russian space program into the ISS partnership. Using this model, no military-sensitive technology would be transferred. China’s economy would allow for it to fully fund its own efforts. Thus there would be little increased expense to the United States for developing this advantageous relationship.“
More importantly, the image of Chinese astronauts working together with global partners, including the United States, would shift the geostrategic import of Chinese achievements in space away from national ambitions towards the more politically constructive Chinese goal of establishing China as an equal member of the international community of space-faring nations. Organizing a U.S.-led coalition of space-faring Asian nations that excludes China would have the opposite effect, and risks igniting a new and counterproductive space race pitting China against its neighbors.
Dr. Pace appears open to a more inclusive approach that should “serve the full range of U.S. interests is in the Asia-Pacific region, beginning but not limited to our traditional friends and allies such as Japan and Australia.” The U.S. and its allies have a strong interest in constructive relations with China, which would be better served by cooperation than by competition in space.
January 28th, 2013
Iran’s English Language outlet Press TV reports today that today (Monday) Iran has successfully launched a monkey on a suborbital flight in its new capsule called Pishgam (Pioneer). The Iranian Fars news agency said the capsule was lofted to the desired altitude of 120 km, sent back telemetry, and returned to earth where the monkey was retrieved safely. Read More
January 4th, 2013
In 2007 and 2010 China conducted anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests, both on January 11. Rumors circulating for the past few months suggest that some within the U.S. defense and intelligence community believe China is preparing to conduct another ASAT test.
The first media report on these rumors appeared in October. China’s Ministry of Defense challenged the information in that report, but in November contacts in China told us an announcement about an upcoming ASAT test was circulated within the Chinese government. We were unable to find a public statement confirming plans for a test in the Chinese media or on publicly accessible Chinese government websites. Then, just before Christmas, a high-ranking U.S. defense official told us that the Obama administration was very concerned about an imminent Chinese ASAT test.
Given these high-level administration concerns, and past Chinese practice, there seems to be a strong possibility China will conduct an ASAT test within the next few weeks. What kind of test and what the target might be is unclear.
The Obama administration has three choices: it can make a quiet diplomatic effort to persuade China to cancel or at least postpone the test, it can publicly call on China not to test, or it can remain silent until China conducts the test and then complain about it afterwards. The Bush administration took the latter approach and the space environment is much worse off for it. Despite having seen the ASAT system tested at least twice before the Jan. 11 2007 destruction of the Fengyun 1C, the Bush administration did not communicate its concerns to China, and we will never know if this might have influenced China’s decision.
The Obama administration should try to dissuade China from conducting the test. China may decide to test anyway, but it might see value in canceling or postponing the test to discuss these issues with the U.S. The Chinese Foreign Ministry routinely expresses support for diplomatic efforts to create an international space security framework. This approach is also in line with U.S. Defense Department policy. Its Oct. 2012 Directive on Space Policy, which lays out the range of approaches the DOD will take to mitigate the threat posed by the development of systems that can interfere with satellites, says it will “support the development of international norms of responsible behavior” in space. Acting to prevent irresponsible behavior before it happens is a clearly preferable approach to supporting international norms than waiting to act until after they have been violated.
High-level intervention in both countries is needed to stop the test and start discussions. Remarkably, there are no regular channels of communication on space issues between China and the United States. Congressional opposition to scientific and commercial cooperation with China in space shut down potential talks on human space flight that could have led to a bilateral dialog on space security.
If China fails to respond to bilateral efforts, the administration should issue a strong public statement prior to the test to increase international pressure on China to cancel it.
What Kind of Test?
The Chinese ASAT test in 2007 targeted an aging Chinese weather satellite in a low earth orbit approximately 850 km above the earth. The ASAT interceptor struck and obliterated the one-ton satellite, creating a large field of space debris that will present a danger to spacecraft orbiting near that altitude for decades.
The 2010 test was conducted as a missile defense test, destroying an object that was not in orbit, so it did not create any long-lasting space debris. The intercept occurred at a much lower altitude than the 2007 test, and targeted a mock warhead launched by a ballistic missile rather than a satellite in orbit. But China reportedly used the same launcher and the same interceptor in both the 2007 and 2010 tests. Chinese defense and aerospace analysts contend that there is no technical distinction between ASAT interceptors and missile defense interceptors that work above the atmosphere, and have argued since the 1980s that they are essentially the same technology (and U.S. analysts agree). That the second test used the same technology in a non-debris creating way may indicate that China now understands the problems associated with tests that destroy satellites.
It is not clear what kind of test may be planned, if indeed one is in the works. There are different types of technologies that can be used as ASAT weapons and a satellite may not be destroyed at all. The planned test could be of the same technology as the 2007 and 2010 tests but in a missile defense or flyby mode, or a test of technology that doesn’t destroy a satellite.
The first U.S. media report suggested that the next Chinese ASAT test, if it occurs, could be at a much higher orbit than the 2007 test. U.S. government sources informed us that some U.S. defense and intelligence analysts think China may attempt to strike a target at an altitude close to the medium earth orbits (MEO) used by U.S., Russian, and some Chinese navigational satellites, which orbit at about 20,000 km above the earth.
Such a test could be interpreted as a signal China wants to hold U.S. GPS navigational satellites at risk, much as the 2007 test was interpreted as a signal China intends to attack U.S. satellites in low earth orbit. But there are good reasons for China not to destroy a satellite at this orbit, including that China plans to use this part of space. Creating debris, as it now understands, would threaten its own satellites. Over the next several years China plans to place more than twenty new navigational satellites in MEO. Together with the satellites already in orbit, these new launches will complete a Chinese satellite navigational system with capability similar to the U.S. GPS constellation, providing Chinese civil, commercial, and military users with valuable location and timing services.
Moreover, as we showed in a previous post, significantly reducing the capability of the U.S. GPS system would take a large-scale and well-coordinated attack, so much so that targeting these satellites may not be an effective strategy.
Ma Xingrui, the General Manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), recently compared the strategic significance of China’s new satellite navigation system to China’s nuclear arsenal. Given the large size of the investment, and the economic and military importance of this system to China, it is questionable whether China would ever actually use the ASAT interceptor it is testing to launch a large-scale destructive attack in MEO, or any other area of space where its satellites operate. China’s emerging space capabilities may be fewer and less capable than those deployed by the United States, but they are just as valuable to Chinese military planners and the Chinese leadership. Over the past several decades China has invested considerable financial, technical and human resources in the development of a comprehensive set of civil and military space programs.
China’s space program is still in the formative stages of its development. Both the United States and the former Soviet Union conducted equally high profile ASAT testing during comparable stages in the development of their space programs, and both eventually decided to stop destructive ASAT testing. Hopefully, China will eventually come to a similar conclusion. Beginning a meaningful bilateral dialog on space security between the United States and China could hasten the day.
December 27th, 2012
Press reports now say South Korea has recovered four pieces of the first stage of the Unha-3 rocket that North Korea launched on December 11 (U.S. time). Since all these pieces were found in approximately the same area, they must all have come from the first stage. Read More
December 20th, 2012
China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun made a statement last month denying that China planned to test a new anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon and that it was holding off until November so as not to affect the U.S. presidential election. The ASAT story seemed to originate in a Bill Gertz video and article on a new conservative U.S. website called Washington Free Beacon. Read More