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Chinese missile test highlights concerns over debris in space

Friday, March 30, 2007

The missile destroyed a weather satellite in space.
BEIJING -- Scientists have concluded that a Chinese missile test in January that smashed an aging weather satellite was the messiest space event ever, adding more than 1,500 big scraps of debris to a junkyard that's orbiting the Earth.
They said it may be only a matter of time before a weather, communications or other satellite -- or the manned International Space Station -- slams into space rubbish.
The debris travels through space at about 17,400 mph, 10 times faster than a bullet from a high-powered rifle and 100 times faster than a race car. A millimeter-size orbiting fleck of aluminum can have the kinetic energy of a bullet against a billion-dollar satellite, said Fernand Alby, the chief of debris monitoring at the French space agency, CNES.
"The breakup of Fengyun-1C is by far the most severe satellite breakup ever in terms of identified debris," said Nicholas I. Johnson, the chief scientist for orbital debris at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The missile that China launched from the Xichang space center in Sichuan province obliterated a defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite and showed the country's space might.
Amount of debris
At first, scientists spotted 700 or so large pieces of debris from the test. But Johnson said the U.S. Space Surveillance Network later tracked more than 1,500 large shards from the shattered Chinese satellite, most of them measuring 4 inches -- the size of a teacup -- or larger. Smaller debris is far more numerous.
"NASA estimates that the number of debris 1 centimeter and larger are on the order of 35,000," Johnson said, adding that when tiny particles are included, the number of flying objects and particles may reach 2 million.
As NASA's tally has climbed, so has anxiety among operators of commercial satellites and specialists at European and U.S. space programs.
France operates 14 civilian and military observation and communications satellites in low Earth orbit, and now deals with high-risk conjunctions -- near-misses in space closer than 1 mile -- with space fragments once every two weeks on average. "The collision risk has been increased by something like 30 percent," Alby said.
Senior U.S. military officers, caught by surprise by the Chinese test, have voiced strong irritation at what they say was the reckless creation of a 2,000-mile-long cloud of space debris.
"Platforms costing billions of dollars to replace and the lives of astronauts from many nations are now at risk from debris left by China's recent ill-advised anti-satellite test," Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees space activities, told a House of Representatives panel earlier this month.
China has defended the test but hasn't addressed the issue of debris.
"It did not pose a threat to anyone, nor did it violate the relevant international treaties," Premier Wen Jiabao said at a news conference March 16.
A variety of Chinese space experts refused requests for interviews. Li Ming, the Chinese host of a meeting in late April in Beijing of the world's top space-junk experts, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, also declined to speak.
"I think they don't like the situation," said Heiner Klinkrad, an orbital debris specialist at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.