Friday, January 19, 2007

Trouble On The High Frontier

It has been the position of the U.S. that there is no arms race in space, and thus, there is no need for new treaties limiting our right to proceed as we see fit.

This may change the thinking a bit.

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.

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

In addition to introducing a renewed military dimension to space, the destruction of the Chinese satellite created a large "debris cloud" that can seriously damage other satellites in nearby orbit, and possibly even spacecraft on their way to the moon or beyond. Analysts said that based on computer models, as many as 300,000 pieces of debris may have been created. While many would be very small, they said, hundreds would be large enough to create potentially serious problems.

The United States and the Soviet Union tested anti-satellite technology in the 1980s, and the United States shot down one of its orbiting satellites in 1985. Partially as a result of the debris problem, both sides stopped the programs.

The Chinese test, first reported online by the magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology, comes at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China over space. China is leading an effort in the United Nations to set up an international conference to address what many consider to be an imminent space arms race. The United States has opposed the idea, arguing that it is not needed because there is no arms race in space. The Bush administration nevertheless released an updated national space policy last fall that strongly asserted an American right to defend itself in space against any actions it considers hostile. ...

Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Henry L. Stimson Center, another nonprofit involved with security issues in Washington, called the Chinese test a predictable -- and unfortunate -- response to U.S. space policies.

"The Chinese are telling the Pentagon that they don't own space," he said. "We can play this game, too, and we can play it dirtier than you."

Krepon said the Chinese test "blows a whole through the Bush administration reasoning behind not talking to anybody about space arms control -- that there is no space arms race. It looks like there is one at this point."


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