Chinese Anti-Satellite Test

Tasneem Jamal

Media Release: 23 January 2007

The Space Security Index 2006 provides important background information on the recent Chinese destruction of one of its own satellites.

The SSI is a fact-based annual assessment by international experts on developments in space. It works from a definition of space security as “sustainable access to and use of space and freedom from space-based threats.” Project Ploughshares, based in Waterloo, ON, manages the work of the research consortium that has made the SSI the primary reference tool for space security.

On 11 January 2007 China launched a medium-range ballistic missile at the Feng Yun 1C (FY-1C) weather satellite in polar orbit from the Xichang Space Center, subsequently intercepting and destroying the satellite. China is now the third state to demonstrate a capability to successfully intercept a satellite with a kinetic kill vehicle in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO). This is the first anti-satellite test (ASAT) conducted since 1985.

The Chinese ASAT test poses three primary threats to space security:

1. The test may instigate a race of space negation capabilities and use. It follows alleged illumination of a U.S. military spacecraft by a Chinese ground-based laser. A range of kinetic and laser ASAT capabilities are being developed in the U.S., Russia, the UK, and Europe (Chapter 7).

2. The test generated up to 40,000 pieces of space debris larger than 1 cm in diameter, although the exact quantity is unknown because the US Space Surveillance Network can only track debris larger than 10 cm in diameter. Debris as small as 1 cm in diameter can be lethal to space assets.

The last US ASAT test in 1985 produced over 250 pieces of catalogued debris, some of which remained in orbit for up to 20 years. A proliferation of kinetic attacks in space would significantly increase indiscriminate hazards to space assets, and potentially make space inaccessible (Chapter 1).

3. The test was not illegal. International treaties including the Outer Space Treaty do not ban conventional weapons in space or ground-based anti-satellite weapons as used by China, demonstrating a gap in the international framework. The recent ASAT test by China may threaten years of international negotiations aimed at agreeing to discuss PAROS (Chapter 2).

For further information contact Jessica West, the Space Security Index manager at Project

Spread the Word