11 April 2007

China's ASAT - The Problem With Debris (Part II)

Well, can't say YHS was entirely surprised. As we first discussed here, the repercussions of this type of test would be felt for sometime. Comes now today an article from Reuters wherein we find the debris field to be larger than first expected:

U.S. DETAILS CHINA SATELLITE DEBRIS, Reuters, April 11, 2007. A larger than previously reported debris field from China's anti-satellite test in January has boosted risks to spacecraft in a wide range of orbits, the U.S. Air Force Space Command said on Tuesday. … The test "made clear that space is not a sanctuary," Ronald Sega, undersecretary of the Air Force, told reporters at a space-industry forum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. … The Space Command is tracking more than 1,600 pieces of the Chinese target, the Feng Yun 1C weather satellite, and most are expected to remain in orbit for "decades," Masao Doi, a command spokesman, said in an e-mail. … With about 10 countries and consortia able to launch payloads into space and about 40 countries owning assets in orbit, "space debris affects us all," Doi said. "The need to protect our space capabilities is as important now as ever and robust space situational awareness is critical to performing this function," he said. …(emphasis added)

View of LEO Satellites (green) and Debris Ring (red) from Chinese ASAT Test
STK-generated images courtesy of CSSI (www.centerforspace.com)

To help put this in perspective -- on January 10th, the day before the test, the catalog of man-made objects on orbit (satellites - operating or not, spent boosters, shrouds, nuts, bolts, gloves, etc.) numbered 14, 406 across a 50-yr period (BTW, Vanguard I, launched in 1958, remains the longest-lived object on-orbit). In one fell swoop, the Chinese added over 10% to that count. Given that almost all of the objects being tracked are smaller than one square meter, one may fully expect that there would be many more pieces of debris associated with the intercept that are both too small to be detected yet present a lethal threat to objects and personnel on orbit.

If there is anything good to come of this, it is the ratification of a growing realization that space really is not a sanctuary and that we must have a robust regeneration effort for a variety of communications, intelligence and navigation satellites presently on-orbit. Not necessarily to reconstitute a 1-for-1 platform replacement so much as an ability to reconstitute the capabilities lost.

Want to learn more about on-orbit debris? Check out this NASA study from 2003 which is an exhaustive collection of debris events up to that date.